Monday, March 10, 2014

Dr. Amelia and our Early Thirsty - do we do it to ourselves?

A friend sent this article on an increase in mental illness in academia.

Much of what the article discusses seems to be balance and workload related, and reminds me of something I hear quite a bit - the university itself is changing. A lot of the pressures on faculty come from our increasing our own expectations to unreasonable levels that senior faculty who went through years ago haven't even come close to. Faculty with little research of their own are rejecting other faculty with some research because it's not the right number of publications in the "right" journals. Credential creep, perhaps the faculty analog of grade inflation, means that friends of mine at very medium-quality regional institutions with a 4-4 load are expected to publish 10 things in top journals to get tenure. Natural scientists are expected to bring in large amounts of grant money to stay around, even as agency budgets shrink and grants become harder to get.

Who says it has to be this way? Why was it decided that faculty at Middling Midwestern U today have to meet the standards that Ivy League faculty had to meet 10 years ago? And can anyone get tenure at an Ivy League school any more?

Should we blame US News, clueless legislators, or did we do this to ourselves?


21 comments:

  1. As I sit here with renewed gastrointestinal issues courtesy of my many-hat-wearing stupidity, I'd say we did it to ourselves. "Why was it decided that faculty at Middling Midwestern U today have to meet the standards that Ivy League faculty had to meet 10 years ago?" Exactly. My department consists of two kinds of tenured folks: those who have been tenured for a very long time, and those who are relatively new (fewer than 10 years in). Those "silverbacks" wouldn't be tenurable under the conditions I and my junior colleagues had to meet, and how did that happen? A glut of PhDs meant that it was a buyer's market, and they could set the bar as high as they liked, and there would always be someone to step up should one of us fall along the way. It's totally stupid, as we are an open-access institution on the Frozen Tundra and we teach a 4/4 load for pay that is laughably low. I've been arguing for years about dialing it back on the requirements, given who we are and what we do, but nobody listens to me because if they did, they'd have to admit that the insane number of hours they work(ed) were basically for naught.

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  2. As one of those who has finally cracked, I'd say we do not do it to ourselves. If we did, what would be the purpose of this blog? We don't read articles about the pressures we put on ourselves, do we?

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  3. No, I don't think we really did it to ourselves. Not as individuals anyway. Universities as organizations might have self-inflicted a lot of harm, and like most organizations, the ones doing the inflicting aren't always the ones getting the harm. There's a lot of 'me too' among universities. Colleges become universities. Undergrad unis become grad schools. R2's want to be R1's. Admin's get rewarded for starting new initiatives - looking after existing programs just isn't as sexy - it's taken for granted.

    So expectations get ratcheted up. And if one individual, through luck, or workaholism, or a sweetheart teaching load, manages to meet the expectations, then the admins assume everybody ought to be able to meet them. And we all get spread a little thinner.


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  4. I blame Administrators who expect us to perform like dancing seals or clapping seals, or whatever the hell kinds of creatures they think we are. My SLAC eliminated tenure two years before I started to work here. That wasn't something the faculty decided; it was a Board decision, and was dictated from on high. Instead, we are on a merit system: those who produce more, get their contracts renewed. Granted, since it is a church-affiliated SLAC, one can conduct student worships or give sermons and that counts as contributing to the culture of the campus. I prefer to stick to publishing and presenting at conferences because the thought of getting up front to give a sermon makes me feel like a naked emperor.

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  5. What if some of us were sorta on the edge before we went into this profession?

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    1. Good point. At the very least,many of us were a little odd (or at least had the tendency to fall toward the one or extreme or another on multiple bell curves) before we started.

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    2. At the place where I used to teach, the saying "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps" was certainly applicable. I'm convinced that some of my fellow employees were in serious need of psychiatric counselling.

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  6. The other side of the coin, of course, is that teaching --especially the teaching of intro or core classes -- is increasingly devalued, especially if you judge by the job security, pay, and prestige of people teaching those classes. Admittedly, the difficulty of evaluating teaching probably has something to do with this (just look at the tangles K-12 school systems are getting themselves into as they try to find way to evaluate their teachers for retention, merit pay, etc.). But still, most schools barely give lip service to valuing teaching.

    At least at schools like mine, I do think faculty are complicit, though perhaps unconsciously so (and/or in the sense of paying a road to hell with good intentions). The Ph.D. glut, and perhaps some other factors, meant that a lot of people who went to R1s (which is where you mostly get a Ph.D. anyway), and were trained for the most part with the assumption that they would land at R1s themselves, instead found themselves at non-flagship state us, SLACs, etc., and, in part so that they could spend more time doing what they enjoyed doing (and perhaps also in part by accident as the result of trying to write themselves into a better job), ended up raising the research ante at those places. I do think deans with similar aspirations/assumptions about what brings prestige played a role, too.

    The really uncomfortable combinations come when faculty at a formerly teaching-oriented school move to lower teaching loads, and the slack is taken up with lower-paid contingent jobs (full- or part-time). While I respect the desire of faculty at my institution to have more time for their research, more opportunity to teach grad students, etc., etc., and understand why they moved over the last few decades in the direction of becoming more research-oriented, I still think the department, the institution as a whole, and ultimately, probably, the faculty (tenured as well as non-tenure-eligible) would probably have been better off if they stuck to 3/3 loads rather than moving to 2/2.

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    1. I don't think that R1s are the only places where PhDs are now required. I'm at a no-tier SLAC and we have been mandated to hire no one who isn't close to finishing ABD or already has a PhD. I think that faculty are complicit in a similar way that abused people are complicit. When the power structure is skewed, complicity is difficult to claim responsibility by those with less power.

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    2. Sometimes the requirement to have a Ph. D. in order to teach seems arbitrary.

      When I was an undergrad, it wasn't unusual for departments in my area to have someone from industry teach courses. Their experience and expertise was considered sufficient qualification, particularly since they probably knew more about the subject than the any members of the faculty.

      A few years ago, I heard that the head of the department in which I did my Ph. D. decided that nobody without a doctorate was allowed to teach there. Gone went all that knowledge and experience and all the professional wisdom that many of the students could have used. Real smart....

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    3. Granted, it's not always a PhD. My SLAC requires a terminal degree (so my department has MFAs who are considered "terminal" and hire-worthy). It makes for difficult hiring in the arts!

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    4. QWV, there's a dark side to your argument promoting experience over education. I was in a discipline that also often employed "professionals" from the field to teach... except they started giving them the academic-y courses to teach in addition to the profession-y courses. There is no possible way that, say, a well-trained journalist is more qualified to teach an Intro to Media Studies course than someone with a Master's of PhD training in the specific field. Oh, they probably could teach intro to journalistic writing WAY BETTER, but the general intro to the study of an acdemic discipline? No effing way.

      Just being IN the field doesn't mean you know how to STUDY the field. Nor vice-versa. Especially when that "journalist" has a ginned up Master's in Management as the "academic credential" to get a college position (and NOT as an adjunct... one somehow got to be department chair!).

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    5. The_Myth:

      The courses that those professionals taught were in niche areas and there weren't any profs who had backgrounds on those subjects. There was a need in industry for graduates with knowledge on those topics and those professionals conveniently had the qualifications to teach those courses.

      Many of those professionals had only a bachelor's degree but, by virtue of their experience, could run rings around any of the faculty on the subject in question. Having a Ph. D. does not automatically make one an expert or knowledgeable because there are certain things that one can only learn through direct experience in the field. But, by restricting who could teach in the department to only those with doctorates, students who could have benefited from the knowledge and insights that those professionals could provide received less than a full education.

      I wasn't surprised at that move. I met the department head who made that decision and I wasn't particularly impressed by him. How he ever got an engineering degree, let alone a doctorate in his discipline, remains a mystery to me.

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    6. I didn't say that very well. What I meant was that nearly all Ph.D.s have experience at an R1 (though some people get their Ph.D.s at an R2), and so have at least some exposure to that model, and probably had professors who take that as the ideal professional model.

      As far as I know, Ph.D.s (or, yes, terminal degrees; in my field, an M.F.A. counts, though an M.A. doesn't, and no, that doesn't always make much sense) are required of new hires pretty everywhere in higher ed these days. Why not? There are plenty of us to go around, and it looks good on accreditation documents, magazine rankings, etc., etc. I wouldn't be surprised if some places now required a Ph.D. for adjuncts (well, at least those adjuncts who don't fit the professional-in-the-field description that my college president insists describes a significant number of our adjuncts. He must be looking at some other department than mine. )

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  7. Some years ago, when some fundamentalist was giving me a hard time in my general-ed science class, I amassed a collection fossils, meteorites, and other curiosities in my office. It's a delight: a natural history museum of my very own!

    One of the mineral specimens is a beautiful little piece of green nephrite jade from China. It cost only about $10. It's very smooth, and soothing to the touch. I can see why ever since ancient times, running one's hands over jade has been a stress reliever.

    The trouble is when the stress lays on thick. My grip tightens, and tightens, and TIGHTENS...and when I hear the jade go CRUUUNCCCHHH...then I have to get another piece of jade, since the pieces left over aren't so smooth anymore.

    Seriously, though, the essay "Zen and the Art of Astronomy Research" is considered among astronomers to be the gold standard in writings about mental health. Here it is:

    http://astrobites.com/2011/04/16/john-johnson-zen-and-the-art-of-astronomy-research/

    It is one of several writings on mental health in academia, here:

    http://www.astrobetter.com/wiki/tiki-index.php?page=Mental+Health

    To answer Dr. Amelia's question, I think that US News and clueless legislators do have much to answer for. So does the Ph.D. glut. Something else that I absolutely cannot STAND are senior faculty who abuse their seniority.

    A particularly nasty breed of these seem to think that junior faculty are in some sort of fraternity initiation. The point of the exercise is NOT to see how much extra stress we can heap on our junior faculty.

    When I served as department Chair, it was all I could do to restrain myself from getting physically violent with two nasty cases we have here. Instead, I USED SARCASM. I knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire, and I was RUTHLESS---and it worked.

    I also think that the ever-expanding class of professional university administrators, the ones who may never have been faculty, and if they were never intend to go back to being faculty, deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Like the similar class of professional administrators in health care, they don't seem to do much except show off how little they understand statistics, make everyone miserable, and make the operation much more expensive. A similar breed has made corporate America so hideously top heavy. They need to be stopped, by faculty action, if it's still possible.

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    1. OK, I'll admit it: one of what keeps me going is my desire to be better than the deadwood, research-inactive professors that marred my undergraduate education. Life loves its ironies, of course: now I get no shortage of students who squander the educational opportunities I make for them. Whenever this happens, or whenever our new, incompetent Dean pulls some bone-headed maneuver, I do think of cutting back on research. I have tenure, so I could get away with it. I never do, though, thanks to my dreaded conscience. So I suppose I do do it to myself. I suppose it serves me right, too, but then living well is the best revenge, and for me that means having an active research program. As you can see, this matter is complicated.

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    2. "Instead, I USED SARCASM." I've seen full professors pull their own heads off rather than face that.

      Those admins who were never faculty sure like to bask in the reflected glow though. Our VP research (who was never a scientist or researcher of any sort - has a degree in some sort of bidness or admin) is always in the photo-op whenever some visiting bigwig stops by the cut the ribbon on whatever New Institute for World-Class Excellence in Applied Widgetology they're setting up this week. There's a brilliant photo of him trotting along puppy-like behind the Prime Minister on one visit. The Uni PR people were very proud of it, and published it far and wide. I never knew whether to laugh or barf.

      But point taken about not cutting back on research - we kind of put ourselves/each other on the horns of a dilemma. If we cut back on research, we're seen (and tend to see ourselves) as deadwood, but if we try to maintain an active program in the face of the mission creep, we drive ourselves to drink (or to drink more).

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    3. Bingo--SLAC's are a popularity contest and power game with the older crew. Teaching is completely undervalued, and when one spends his life's work on mastering this craft, including his topic and how to teach it, it's a huge loss and grieving occurs. Unresolved sadness can morph to depression (I learned that in group, so you can take it to the bank).

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    4. "'Instead, I USED SARCASM.' I've seen full professors pull their own heads off rather than face that."

      Remarkably effective, isn't it? Physical violence may be more gratifying, but if you want professors to do something, just wound their pride, it hits them where it hurts.

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  8. I was speaking to someone recently who was hired TT at a community college last year. She told me the hiring decision came down to publications. So, not only must you have a PhD to be hired at this CC, they also require a certain # of publications in the right journals. For a CC position (5/5 teaching load) in the humanities. I'm pretty sure that wasn't a requirement for a TT position at the pleasant SLAC I went to 20 years ago.

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    1. Precisely.

      I was hired over the objection of at least one faculty member because I didn't have enough publications--but my teaching demonstration was the best of the four people they interviewed (two of us were internal candidates, so it was fun working with the person who didn't get the job).

      As I said above, it's utterly insane to expect someone teaching *that* many classes (how many preps?) to be constantly doing research and publishing. Especially since where I am, we're in the bottom 20% of similar places nationwide as far as pay.

      But my colleagues? The superstars? They now want the ADJUNCTS to be presenting at conferences and publishing as a way of "keeping up with the scholarship in the discipline" (and keeping their jobs).

      We do it to ourselves--or part of "we" anyway.

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