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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Graduate school and high school

There’s a very interesting post (and a couple of interesting comments) over at Critical Mass, Erin O’Connor’s blog, responding to this Village Voice essay on the rotten state of the academic job system, and this fascinating essay on the Invisible Adjunct in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Anya Kamenetz’s Voice essay opens with a dazzling pitch for graduate study in the humanities:

Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.

Sounds great, no?  And even this description is a bit too rosy:  after all, the “for the rest of your life” part depends not on getting one of those increasingly rare tenure-track jobs but actually on getting tenure, and let’s not even broach the question of how many of those tenured positions are not merely comfortable but positively enjoyable (for their intellectual rewards, brilliant students, lovely region of the country, or what have you).  I got one of those jobs fifteen years ago, but I’ve never been so delusional as to think it was simply a question of merit; on the contrary, with each passing year I’m more amazed at my sheer dumb luck.  I can be specific about this:  I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in what turned out to be the most fortunate year since 1970 for English Ph.D.s (1989, when the number of Ph.D.s awarded in English hit its lowest point since the 1960s and the number of jobs available briefly spiked over two thousand before crashing again to half that level in the early 1990s).  I applied to 73 positions; I got one job offer.  Three or four years later, and I might well have gotten one fewer job offers.  In 1989, 25 Ph.D. candidates from the University of Virginia racked up 175 interviews at the MLA; only a few years later, 40 candidates landed 36 interviews.  As the saying goes, you do the math.

Anyway, Professor O’Connor responds by (a) announcing that she’s leaving her tenured position for a job teaching high school, and (b) asking,

Why do you hear absolutely nothing about this career option from within academe? Why do academic departments pretend this entirely dignified and deeply meaningful career path does not exist-- even though it could be just what many of their otherwise unemployable Ph.D.’s, not to mention their dissatisfied faculty, are looking for? Why do they treat as beneath their notice a type of work that they ought to be embracing as a seriously significant alternative to the dead-end academic career of the adjunct? Do I really have to ask?

These are good questions, and certainly O’Connor deserves all kinds of kudos for giving up a job in a profession she no longer respects.  But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that you hear absolutely nothing about teaching in high schools when you go looking for discussions of the structural crisis in graduate labor.  Perhaps that’s true in the precincts Professor O’Connor has inhabited thus far-- Berkeley, Michigan, and Penn-- but it’s not true across the board.

In fact, if you look carefully you can sometimes find people advocating

“strengthening the ties between the M.A. and high school teaching-- not only in the sense that we should try to offer the degree to more high school English teachers, but also in the sense that we should try to imagine the teaching of high school English as a worthy and appropriate career for mid-level graduate students.”

The rest of the passage both confirms and contests O’Connor’s account:

“In my experience, suggesting to students that they might teach in secondary schools has been a little like nominating one’s colleagues for early retirement:  here’s the M.A., students hear, and here’s the map out of town.  Don’t bother thinking about the power and prestige of being a college professor-- here’s your free pass to Central High.  To students who regard high school teaching as something unspeakably worse than college teaching, I have shown the following job announcements, all of which, happily enough, appeared in the same issue of our departmental newsletter one fine spring day:

College of Lake CountyTenure track position to teach English composition and literature.  Course load is 5 sections per semester.  Position begins fall 1995.

Gustavus Adolphus CollegeSeeking a person to teach from September to February as a replacement for a professor on leave.  The individual will teach three courses (Creative Writing and Ethnic American Literature) in the fall (Sept. to Dec.) and one course in the January term.

Lincoln Land Community CollegeFull-time tenure-track position to teach five classes.  Should have experience teaching the writing process at different levels to both traditional and non-traditional students and should be able to teach the full range of the lower division curriculum.

“These cheery notices were soon bested by another local school, which advertised a position that would carry tenure without promotion for a salary in the low 20s:  to the lucky candidate, a lifetime instructorship without hope of further professional reward.  I show students these notices not merely to frighten and depress them (though this works like a charm), but to make a more important point, namely, that some opportunities in high school teaching can offer greater professional autonomy, more substantial intellectual rewards, and better pay than teaching at the college level.  As Alison T. Smith, a 1994 Ph.D., writes in the 1996 issue of Profession, secondary school teaching is ‘still an ignored market’:  even though her own experience teaching high school ‘proved one of the most rewarding I ever had,’ still, her colleagues warned her ‘not to stay there too long lest I be labeled a high school teacher, which would forever destroy my prospects of getting a serious job at the college level’ (69-70).  Smith now teaches at the Hill Center in Durham, North Carolina, a high school for students with identified learning disabilities, and reports that ‘the salary, benefits, and level of respect I receive from colleagues are better than what I found at the university level’ (72). 

“Alison Smith’s experience, as former graduate students can attest, is not unique.  Indeed, for every student who resents the advice to seek a high school job, I wager, there are ten more who wish they’d heard that kind of advice six or seven years ago.  Nor is this strategy merely a matter of cutting our losses; on the contrary, it could be a strategy for dramatically expanding our potential public constituency.  The profession as it now operates seems much more interested in producing volume after volume of criticism and theory for faculty and graduate students than in disseminating some of that criticism and theory to undergraduates and high school students.  Well-trained, unembittered, comparatively unexploited M.A.s might perform a crucial function in serving as liaisons between graduate programs and public and private secondary education. . . .  It is true that secondary education is not considered to be one of the profession’s more glamorous constituencies; but then it is also true that there are few constituencies more important to the long-term health of the humanities in the United States.”

Now, I grant that the argument here involves “mid-level graduate students” rather than new Ph.D.s, adjuncts, assistant professors, or tenured faculty.  But I’m guessing that the author of this passage imagined that his or her proposal would also help to address the question of the “overproduction” of Ph.D.s, as well as the dreary fact that most of the isolating and embittering aspects of graduate school are associated with writing that 300-page document less than a dozen people will read while teaching introductory courses for rather less than $20K a year.  Anyway, that’s not the important thing about the argument.  The important thing in it is the Alison Smith essay, “Secondary Education:  Still an Ignored Market,” Profession (1996), pp. 69-72.  Definitely get a hold of that short essay and distribute it to clueless faculty members near you.

And best of luck to Erin O’Connor, wherever she goes.

Posted by Michael on 04/29 at 09:31 AM
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Monday, April 26, 2004

Guest blogging, kind of

I said last week that I’d been getting some great feedback on my brief post on Paul Berman and prowar liberals.  Here’s one example, from Dan Borus, professor of history at the University of Rochester.  I’ll skip the opening paragraph-- in which Professor Borus generously thanks me for having the only blog that talks about Peggy Noonan, novelist Richard Powers, and the St. Louis Blues (whom, he says, he used to cover as a radio reporter back in the days when they had Derek Sanderson)-- and cut right to the substance of the letter.

Depending on how the week shakes out (it’s the final week of the semester, and I’m chin-deep in final papers), this may be “Guest Blogging, Kind Of” Week.  I don’t have comments on this site, for reasons that Professor Quirrel summed up eloquently in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when he cried, “Troll!  Troll in the dungeon!” But I do get plenty of letters from readers, and I do reply to every one of ‘em . . . even the ones that promise me that they can help me blog all night long.  So, without further ado, Professor Borus:

“I second your contention that Berman’s advocacy, whatever its merits in terms of heartfelt wish, has become unrealistic and counterproductive. The image of throwing a rock and watching the ripples (at least it wasn’t knocking down dominoes) is wishful thinking and more than a bit reckless. One objection to the Berman position rests on feasibility. American power is damaging in one vein (we have the weapons) and inspiring in another (we have a set of stated principles that often attract others) but nonetheless not omnipotent. There are far too many unintended consequences to such a mammoth project. This seems especially true in light of the demonstrated incompetence of our leaders and their lack of knowledge of the facts on the ground. That they believed the Shia were secular, and denied there were any holy places in Iraq, is breathtaking ignorance. I knew they were venal; I didn’t think of them as so incompetent as to so thoroughly alienate large segments of the Iraqi population. And academics are supposedly the ones who live in an ivory tower.

“The problem is, of course, deeper than incompetence. Your Tikkun analysis was, I always thought, quite on target. The quarrel is not with fighting Bin Laden; he is, as we used to say, an enemy of the people-- both the American people and the people of the Mideast. The ‘thinness’ of Berman’s view of democracy leaves him susceptible to certain difficulties and supporting untenable and, to my mind, unjustified actions. In not seeing democracy as a lived experience to be defended, Berman can end up coming fairly close to supporting actions that seem more than likely to never allow for the Iraqi people to begin to live democratically-- at least in the foreseeable future.

“I suppose I’d frame the objection about thinness a bit differently that you have. Perhaps it is my own recent reading of Randolph Bourne, but I also find the Wilsonianism of Berman worrisome. As you imply, I think, but do not quite say, it rests on an uncritical association of democracy with America. It is then an easy step to associate democracy with the actions of the American state, a far different matter. Posing the problem as a grand narrative of transcendental evil versus transcendental good often moves people of good will such as Berman to treat American actions as ipso facto democratic and to substitute American government for democracy in the world, with the same kind of logic that prompted the Leninist party to substitute itself for the proletariat. In the process, the people for whom the acts are taken become ciphers, abstractions, rather than performing people. So little thought is given to the needs, desires, and institutions of the Iraqi people, except in the abstract. . . .

“Nowhere is slippage from support for democracy to support for the American government so clear in Berman’s Times piece as in the fourth paragraph you cite. There, he rather ludicrously sees the rather ineffective Baathist firing at American planes (I can’t recall any of them being hit) as a defiant transgression against American interests that has world historical implications.

“Somehow this defiance of the American state is linked with actual attacks on the American people and makes Saddam-- whose movement only rarely ever articulated, much less acted upon, the four tenets Berman outlines as the essence of the terrorist political movement-- a key enabler of a movement that despised Baathist secularism as a miniature version of the true Satan. I’m still mystified by the incorporation of Saddam and Bin Laden, which is a constantly meme of liberal war hawks. I worry that such logic underwrites military action against any action that could be construed as demonstrating American weakness.”

I should probably add that Professor Borus agrees with me on another key issue as well, namely, that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is not a question of “imperialism,” as some people on the antiwar left would have it, but rather an instance of criminal negligence-- which is another matter altogether.  But I have to confess that I had completely forgotten that Derek Sanderson had ever been a member of the St. Louis Blues.  I knew him only as a Boston Bruin and as a nemesis of my New York Rangers-- and, of course, as one of the very first NHL stars to adopt the porn star look of the 1970s (long hair, thick sideburns, Fu Manchu mustache).  And I think Borus is entirely right to link the “thinness” of Berman’s conception of democracy to the prowar-liberal willingness to try to remake Iraq by force.  Thanks, Dan.  Wish I’d thought of that. . . .

Posted by Michael on 04/26 at 11:34 AM
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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Amazing Jamie milestone

So the no-longer-little ignatz, now 12 years old, gets it into his head that this year he will ride the motorized go-carts at Tussey Mountain Park all by himself.  This decision apparently follows months of playing the Cruisin’ USA and Cruisin’ World arcade games at the Y, on which Jamie has logged many minutes of driving on the roads, sidewalks, ditches etc. of Las Vegas, London, New York and sundry underwater fantasy locations (I believe this is an option in the “Cruisin’ Exotica” version).  I explained to him the difference between driving video-game cars and real go-carts with motors (and-- more importantly-- brakes), and he assured me he was ready to go.  I had my doubts.

So today Janet graded papers all day while I took Jamie.  And at his request, I took him to the go-carts, where, to my utter astonishment and heart-in-throat pride, he took a cart all by himself and promptly careened around the track, through the hairpin turns and everything, at maximum speed all the way.  He came in early, after three laps, and crashed somewhat gently into the parked carts, whereupon he got a pair of lectures (from the track guy and from me) about coming in slowly with his foot on the brake.  On his second trip he got it right.  Meanwhile, my cart-- the original idea was for me to escort him around the track, guiding him and shouting encouragement-- stalled twice, leaving Jamie to his own devices.  Which was probably all the better, in the end.

Jamie is a driver.  Un-effing-real.

Well, he had his WWF phase four or five years ago.  Is this the beginning of his CART phase?  Bring it on.

Posted by Michael on 04/24 at 12:20 PM
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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Home game

Tomorrow at 9, my B league hockey team, the Capitals, plays its final game of the season.  I come into the game with 48 goals on the year, and my team comes in having lost only 9 of its 39 games so far (I’ve played in 29 of those).  We play the team that’s accounted for 6 of those 9 losses; we’ve beaten them three or four times.  Should be a good matchup.

In other news, my son Nick turns 18 tomorrow.

Hmm, what to do.  Final game of the season, Nick’s 18th birthday.  Final game of the season. . . .

I am kidding.  We’re taking Nick out to dinner someplace very nice.  And the Capitals will just have to wait til next year.

I’ll try to get back to the usual mix of serious/facetious blogging later this week.  In the meantime, please wish Nick a very happy 18th.

Posted by Michael on 04/21 at 11:31 AM
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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

On the road agin

So what do I do with myself on these academic versions of business trips?  You know, while Janet is home taking Jamie to school and doing his homework with him at night?  Mostly, work work work.  Sunday I had the afternoon to myself, and read a book manuscript for an academic press.  Answered email at night, after people from Ohio State came and took me to dinner (blackened grouper, thank you, very nice).  Yesterday I did (1) a graduate seminar in disability studies, taught by Brenda Brueggemann; (2) a lunch roundtable on the “utility” of the arts and humanities, based on an essay I published last year; and (3) a two-hour symposium with a dozen graduate students, based on a couple of things I’ve written on disability and a couple of things on the profession of literary study.  The students came with great questions.  Today I’m speaking at this conference.  I have the whole morning to myself, which means answering more email, writing a letter of recommendation, writing a draft of a short essay, replying to my students’ seminar comments, and just a bit of blogging (that would be what I’m doing right now!  with the very same pen you gave me for my birthday!).

But occasionally I do find the time to relax and do nothing useful.  Even though I had a long day yesterday beginning at 6:30 am, I got back from dinner at 9:30 determined to catch the end of the Bruins-Canadiens game 7 and the entire (what a luxury) Flames-Canucks game 7.  The Flames-Canucks series has been beyond belief fabulous, with the Flames coming back from a 4-0 deficit in game six (that’s nearly unheard of, you hockey neophytes out there, especially in these dark times when NHL offensive production has fallen to levels associated with Mini-Mite Soccer Leagues) to lose anyway in triple overtime.  Because I believe that the entire Vancouver franchise should be cosmically punished unto the seventh generation for the Todd Bertuzzi incident, I’ve been pulling for the Flames (also, they haven’t won a playoff series since 1989), but because the game began at 10:30 pm Eastern, I wasn’t sure I was going to have the stamina or the intestinal fortitude to see the whole thing.

So when the Flames’ Jarome Iginla scored his second goal of the game with just under ten minutes to play to put Calgary up 2-1, I thought justice would be done.  (Show of hands:  how many people know that Iginla scored 41 goals this year, tied for the league lead, returning to his 2001-02 form when he was the NHL’s leading scorer, and that he’s a Player of Color?  I didn’t think so.) Imagine my dismay, then, when-- in the waning seconds of the game, after the Canucks pull their goaltender for an extra skater-- Iginla backhands it into Calgary ice, just missing the net, then weirdly steps on his stick and falls, allowing the Canucks’ Markus Naslund to skate the length of the ice and take a last shot on the Flames’ net . . . whereupon the Canucks’ Matt Cooke picks up the rebound and flips the puck over Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff’s left shoulder with 5.7 seconds left.  And we go to overtime.

But I don’t.  It’s just past 1 am at this point, and I’m done.  Fearing another triple-overtime game that will end at 3 am, I roll over, turn off the light, and leave the Flames and Canucks to their own devices.

So this morning I learn that the Flames’ Martin Gelinas ended the game 85 seconds into overtime, on an assist from Iginla.  Well, them’s the breaks.  I needed the extra 16 minutes and 25 seconds of sleep anyway.  But this just goes to show you that there really is no such thing as “momentum” carrying over between periods or between games.  The Canucks should have been despondent and flummoxed in game six, losing that four-goal lead; the Flames should have been despondent and flummoxed in game seven, losing game six after coming back from the depths; and the Flames should have been completely deflated in overtime of game 7, after giving up the tying goal in the final seconds.  But the game doesn’t really depend on how the players feel, or on what sportswriters think about how the players feel.  It depends on what the players do.  Simple, no?

And as you’ll remember, I picked the Flames to begin with.  Back on April 7, in fact:  Lightning over Isles in 6; Bruins over Canadiens in 6; Devils over Flyers in 7; Senators over Maple Leafs in 7; Red Wings over Predators in 5; Blues over Sharks in 7; Flames over Canucks in 6; Avalanche over Stars in 7.

So now I confess that I didn’t really think the Blues or the Devils would do it-- those were my Wishful Thinking picks (partly because I wanted to catch the Devils in New Jersey in late May), so I consider myself right nonetheless on those two.  Lightning, Red Wings, Flames, Avalanche . . . right, right, right, and right.  With Boston and Montreal I forgot that the Bruins have played Montreal 3,744 times in the playoffs, usually with markedly superior teams, but haven’t beaten Montreal since . . . uh . . . hmm . . . since maybe Eddie Shore led them to a 3-0 sweep of the Canadiens in 1929 (this was back in the “leather puck” era).  And as for Toronto-Ottawa tonight, yes, I know Ottawa hasn’t beaten Toronto in a series since the days when the games were played outdoors by guys in handlebar mustaches and it was illegal to make a forward pass in the offensive zone.  But even though I remain fond of ex-Ranger Brian Leetch and wish him well as a Maple Leaf, I just can’t root for a team coached by Pat Quinn.  Think of a cheap-shot artist who spends half his time thugging up the ice and half the time whining about the officiating, and you’ve got Quinn Hockey.  Go Sens.

Whoops, that was way too much hockey blogging.  And checkout time is at noon!  But as my friend Laura Kipnis says, checkout times are for other people.

Posted by Michael on 04/20 at 04:36 AM
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Friday, April 16, 2004

For a narrower war

Posted by Michael on 04/16 at 04:33 AM
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