Notes on the Meltdown of Academia under the Hot Texas Sun

In the last weeks, the big school across town achieved a high rank in two enviable, practical areas – the amount of actual education (required core courses) and as a place to recruit for the work place. These are, I suspect, not unrelated. And partially we help – a good chunk of those core courses are taught and taken with us; our tuition is cheaper, class sizes smaller, and teachers of those basics more mature and often more degreed. Everything isn’t bad across town – nor here.

Our services will be more in demand as the cost-cutting across town decimates the corps of undergraduate teachers – lecturers, part-timers, grad students. The rubber is about to hit the road – or the bubble burst, as bloggers suspect. I’ve got mixed feelings – my daughters’ spouses – and to some extent the girls themselves – have made choices that seemed to inevitably lead to academia. While they have enjoyed the ride, the skills aren’t necessarily transferable.

Last weekend, we stood around, as one of his colleagues was about to introduce my husband; his brief talk was from a European conference & was now to an audience of exchange grad students. Pretty typical moment – if at the Kolache Festival. One of his colleagues complained about our governor, politicians using budget shortfalls to do what “they’d always wanted to do.” As the professor pointed out, by the standards of the knife-wielders, the first to go were those doing what the politicians said they wanted – teaching lower level & larger classes. He said this with contempt – as if the politicians were so stupid, they didn’t realize the consequences.

Our governor may be stupid; so may be those who advise him. I doubt they are making those specific decisions – their argument is that the university budget can’t keep increasing in bad years. I suspect some of them & some of the lower level decision-makers aren’t wise nor as concerned with the average student as they might be. But, I asked, what else could they do? The prospect they saw was of black balling, of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education decrying this hick school’s anti-intellectualism, and, finally, inevitably, decades spent in legal battles. Those hard-working plebian lecturers can’t sue.

Few tenure track faculty teach more than 4 classes a year; a large percentage teach one or two. Part of the cost cutting in his department may make it impossible for my husband to keep editing the journal that he has taken in hand, improving timeliness, enlarging readership. But if he can’t do that because he will no longer have an assistant, will no longer have a course reduction, well, that’s fair. He wouldn’t have taken on this job if he hadn’t been given those perqs – but they aren’t what he was hired to do. Introducing him, another colleague pointed out that this wasn’t my husband’s day job, although he’d published several books in that area. I’m proud of his level of productivity, but he is aware – as am I – he couldn’t have done that if he’d been spending the years running the business I did (which fed a dozen or more people) or teaching five sections a semester, as now I do. We are both happy with the choices we’ve made, but. . . He and his colleagues, once they have tenure, can indulge their intellectual interests. I wouldn’t argue that isn’t often a good thing. (Though that they believe Obama is an intellectual and Palin an idiot makes me wonder about the strength of their analytic skills, let alone their beliefs Marx has a greater grasp on economics than Hayek and Castro on sensitivity than Bush.) But that others should subsidize such study in hard times is probably too much to expect.

My husband’s response to his colleague was that he had often thought how cushy their jobs were, how lucky he was. You can take the boy off the farm, but he remembers the calluses. And he knows he’s lucky to get paid to talk about the Victorian sages and the Battle of White Mountain; he knows he’s lucky to have a professional job that may not pay as much as some other professional jobs – but those are jobs that require a good deal more time and effort. His has been a pretty good life. And it will probably not end all that badly – we aren’t far from retirement. But life is not going to be as cushy for the next generation. For that I feel some guilt, some sympathy. Life isn’t fair. But this just wasn’t going to go on forever. His colleagues may think it should, but I have my doubts. And I have no doubt it won’t. Education will, research will, life will. What is eternal about what we do will continue. But the form will be different. Maybe better. Maybe not. We’ll find out in the next few years.

4 thoughts on “Notes on the Meltdown of Academia under the Hot Texas Sun”

  1. These guys profess to be humanists and socialists and to have all these great moral values that make them superior to the money-grubbing capitalists out there in the real economy.

    But where the rubber hit the road, their own money, their own responsibility, they treated a generation of adjuncts as absolute dirt. a reserve army of unemployed laborers, who they exploited, paid wages suited foe illegal illiterates washing dishes, while shamelessly generating wave after wave of naive, new, unemployable Ph.D.s to swell the ranks and keep wages at rock bottom.

    Looks like the good times are ending. Hard to feel sorry.

  2. Well, Lex, the silver lining may be just those two rankings: they value a school for how much and how well the basic classes are required and taught; the other is how attractive their graduates are to businesses. These are forces for a return to the basics in college education – and not a bad thing at that.

    My point was (I guess you caught it) that these guys have the gall to complain that the politicians aren’t respecting the people you describe because they are the ones that will be fired – the offensiveness of hearing someone criticize others who have been backed into this particular corner by the extent to which the ruling academics have buttressed their cushy jobs is really maddening. I’m one of those people wbo was a t.a. at a large state school for 7 years – one in which 99% of the freshman courses were taught by t.a.s and 88% of the sophomore ones – and that was in the seventies. Now, I’m one of those people who teaches at the feeder school for such an institution – with 5 classes per semester. I’m pretty happy here, but of course what you are saying is something I know far too well to always play nice at social events.

    Yes the treatment of grad students, etc. has been predatory – often by the same people who condemn Arnold for his colonialism. (Arnold spent a good deal of his life going around to schools and talking to, testing, children to estimate how good the schools were. That a modern academic, probably cossetted as you argue and I describe, wants to describe this good father and husband, a man of moderate means and a strong sense of duty, an elitist and misogynist is yet more proof of remarkably unselfconscious projection.)

    Though the breadth of some academics’ contempt for the people they serve is ugly, the principle of land grant colleges has always seemed to me one of the great American ideas. And it has affinities with the great books vision that long characterized the U of Chicago. That vision is too tough to die, though it could probably use some oxygen.

    I remember when one of my husband’s colleagues put his collection of the “great books” up for sale, saying that clearly we’d gone beyond that. He was a big fan of Foucault, Derrida, etc.

    Oh well, I can go on for hours. But I do think the end is coming – and while the light at the end may be a better educational system, there are going to be a lot of bumps along the way. That faculty is not going to give up its perqs easily. Few were farm boys and most don’t have that sense of proportionality. (Nor wives as bitchy as me to keep reminding them of how lucky they are.)

  3. From what I remember of my undergrad days at UT Austin in engineering school, all my classes were taught by the professors except for the engineering 101 orientation class, and Statics. It was only in the Liberal Arts classes I had to take that I was exposed to teaching by TA’s. Most of my engineering professors were well respected in industry and one is the recently retired NRC chairman (he was also my faculty advisor, and an extremely nice man).

    I know I had one English class taught by a preofessor who truly hated the Engineering and Sciences departments since they got a lion’s share of the money and teh professors were much better paid.

  4. I find frustration in the knowledge that spending for education is given top billing in any liberal spending campaign, yet education doesn’t create jobs. I also find it frustrating that government job requisitions demand a piece of paper certifying the applicant has received sufficient brainwashing to become a government employee. Adding to that frustration is the knowledge that I must go into extreme personal debt in order to obtain this offensive piece of paper or else remain unemployed. Educated ignorance breeds educated ignorance and beats much of the drive, ambition or innovation out of the young and old alike.

    Government education combines the incompetence of bureaucracy with the iron hand of socialism and spits out citizens who are classified according to their willingness to adhere to the brainwashing. Sadly, those who are the best liars are given the best opportunities. As long as a “scholar” can impress a professor with an extensive bibliography to assure that no original thought has been included in the paper, that student will do well indeed.

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