How to respond to an academic troll.

13 07 2008

Marc Bousquet certainly deserves the hiatus he’s currently taking for spending all that time arguing about the nature of the academic job market on the thread he directed me to a few days ago. I, for one, don’t have the stomach to go through all of this. As a public service, however, Marc has pulled out a piece of his argument and turned it into a post at his place.

What started him going was this comment from an anonymous engineering professor:

You’re obviously not an economist. But if you want to be the voice of morality for the academic world, you need to answer a very basic question. If it’s that bad, why do they keep doing the job? Why do they choose this career? Economics is based on common sense. Unlike what humanities profs all believe, there is thinking ability outside the humanities. Just because the question is one you don’t want to think about does not make someone posting the question a troll.

Oh the horrors! We should try to answer economic questions using basic economic theory!

To which Marc responded thusly:

The “autistic” greed-pigs among us and their paid enablers—the purveyors of “basic economic theory!”—need to see their piggery as the simple, inevitable, product of justice and right. But it’s actually the complex, far from inevitable result of centuries of jealous, callous struggle to maintain the power and wealth of the owning class.

As Warren Buffett likes to say, “There’s class war all right. And the rich are winning.”

Read the rest of his post for some terrific social-justice inspired outrage. If only I could be that eloquent in the middle of a troll-fight!

Indeed, I’ve been pondering that first comment for a couple of days now wondering what I’d do if i saw it. I have considerable experience arguing economic questions with my brother, an economist. I also have considerable experience arguing with libertarians over at my other blog, the Writing on the Wal, but there we’re arguing about Wal-Mart workers. It’s a little harder arguing about my own line of work since I have a vested interest in seeing it continue at least until I hit retirement age.

This is a day late and a dollar short, but here’s what I got:

If it’s that bad, why do they keep doing the job? Why do they choose this career?

Classical economic theory is based on perfect information about outcomes and at every moment in my academic career, I’ve been given bad info. I started grad school in 1990, right after Bill Bowen told me that people would be begging for my services by the time I was done. In graduate school, I was taught by professors who were very good at teaching and researching, but who knew absolutely nothing about the state of the job market. For instance, I really wish somebody, anyone, had bothered to tell me that the ability to teach courses outside of US History would have greatly improved my job prospects. Instead, I got to my first job, where candidates interviewed before me couldn’t even teach both halves of the American survey, and got continually teased for the narrowness of my historical expertise. I’ve been reading world history ever since to make up for that mistake.

I made it to tenure because of a variety of factors, including my gender, the willingness of my late parents to support me during graduate school and just plain old dumb luck. Countless others haven’t and never will. Some of that has to do with the fact that nobody ever thinks that failure is going to happen to them, but I know it has to do with lack of information too. How many tenured professors have any idea of the state of the job market in their field, let alone outside of it? Sure, they know if a published colleague is retiring, but math not only dictates it demands that the vast majority of grad students will have to teach something else entirely assuming they get a chance to teach anything at all.

I guess that article by Townshend and Grafton that started this all is of some use if it prepares a few grad students for the almost-inevitable years of suffering they’ll be putting in, but as I suggested in my comment in that discussion: There’s a supply side (the number of PhDs) and a demand side (the number of tenure track positions). If we spend too much time navel gazing about the supply side, the demand side will start approaching zero in the next generation or two. Then nobody will read anyone’s books after my generation of professors are gone because every college in America will be the University of Phoenix.

Besides, even engineering professors can be replaced by part-timers.




One response

13 07 2008

Your last sentence sums up the problem with the university teaching profession. Schools have been turned into businesses with a focus on the bottom line and have lost their focus as places of higher learning (and support for pure research and scholarship).

I blame this on the faculty. Professors, over the past 60 years, have been increasingly willing to let the administration take over more and more of the running of the university. The few that engage in any sort of participation are usually involved in some arcane faculty senate debate over details of curricula or the like.

Professors see having to participate in the life of the university as a burden on their time and most aren’t even on campus beyond their contracted hours. Class schedules are increasingly arranged so that professors can teach at their convenience (no Friday’s) rather than for the student’s.

The result is that professors are just part of the “overhead” and getting adjuncts is all the same to the administration. A faculty that wasn’t so self-centered could demand that all, but the most specialized courses, be taught by full timers. They could also demand that course offerings return to a more traditional set up with a required core curriculum of the arts and general sciences for the first two years.

There are more students registered in higher ed than ever before, so if there are only dim prospects for permanent employment than the profession hasn’t been looking out for itself.

There are several avenues open to faculty (not that they may not be “bloody”). First is demanding a return to governance by the faculty. Second is pushing for changes in accreditation standards so that schools that outsource their teaching to adjuncts can no longer get accreditation. Third can be lobbying for changes in tax and incorporation laws so that schools have to adhere to their original mandates more closely.

There is a bit of activity on this front when it comes to spending their endowments, but schools can get past these by just building more and not focusing on scholarship. NYU is just about to demolish what little is left of Greenwich Village as it grows beyond any rational size. It’s fairly typical of the mega-universities these days.

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