FeaturedWhy I Chose Not to Get a PhD

This was originally published here on ethnography.com in April, 2012. Why did you choose to get a PhD (or not)?

I got to spend some time with a friend recently that decided some time ago to restart her PhD work.  She is already ABD, but is starting the dissertation over from scratch.  My question was “Why?” She is a well-respected professional, and within the her field a PhD will likely be of limited benefit professionally compared to the mountain of work ahead of her, not to mention the expense involved.

In the course of the conversation I was reflecting on my own choice to not get a PhD and thinking that it might provide food for thought for a larger audience. Not to mention the pitfalls of getting to attached to getting one.

When I started my graduate work in anthropology, I had the same expectations as most people: I thought I would wind up teaching at a university or maybe in some kind of think tank. Rather than going directly into a PhD program (I already had a B.A and MS.Ed in other areas), I chose what was then a terminal master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I thought at the time, doing a MA first would enable me to get into a better PhD program, in reality I don’t think it makes a difference either way. Future graduate students should also take note USC now has a full-fledged PhD program that started several years after I finished my M.A.  Well, as time went by, my interests and goals evolved.  Not an unexpected thing to happen as you spend a couple of years learning about the in’s and out’s of a discipline. Looking back, I believe that one of the most significant course changes was when I decided that I was more interested in applied work rather than working in academia. I won’t mince words, once it got around the department that I was not planning on pursuing an academic path, it felt like I was pretty much dropped like a hot rock as far as most of the professors were concerned.  One professor [to remain nameless] didn’t mince words either, she told me flatly that any student that was not planning on a professional academic career as an anthropologist should not expect any interest on the part of the instructors. My thesis advisers promptly dropped any interest in my thesis work as well, and it shows. Before you think it was awful, I am talking about significant small moments in time that occurred during my grad work, not the entire school experience. I got an excellent education, I had some great instructors and I would go back to South Carolina again.  At that time, quite simply, applied anthropology as looked down on as well as only getting an MA. Things have become considerably more enlightened in the discipline overall since then.

Compounding the issue of being primarily interested in applied work, my research interests in two divergent areas were not seen as worthy of anthropology: One was the area of intentional violence. My graduate thesis was based on intensive research with a prison population, and that evolved into interest in two areas: terrorism on the one hand and serial homicide on that other. Both of which I was curious to see if they could be studied almost as a cultural language or the semiology of the acts. The second was in a totally different area; due to my long-standing technology interests (I had always put myself through school as a computer jock) I was becoming much more interested in the intersection of culture and technology. It turns out that the latter interest would serve me very well later in ways I never imagined.

But given all that, I STILL wanted that PhD.  Why?Well, as it has and had for so many others it became for me the difference between success and failure.  I was $150,000 in debt and looking at more, I had years of education behind me and more to go.  To me, getting those three little letters was the difference between being a legitimate scholarly person and a nobody.  I got so nutty about it that I wouldn’t even date someone that was not getting some advanced degree (That stupid arrogance likely cost me some excellent relationships.). A PhD was a ticket too studying the topics I wanted, a life of scholarship and (the applied part) once I got the ticket, I would be able to pursue applied endeavors at will.  Yes, I was indeed blind to how the life of a university professor really looks.

So what happened? Shatteringly, but in reality lucky for me in the long run, I did not get into my first two choices for a PhD program, but was accepted to the applied PhD program at the University of South Florida. Given my interests were then more fringe topics, there was no one there that was doing work even remotely related and I was concerned I would be suffering from a real lack of mentor-ship.  Also, the connections you make in your PhD program can be very important when job hunting, having dissertation advisers that can make introductions later was a concern.

Then, the proverbial last straws. I went to a AAA meeting and on the job board were four or five lonely looking position announcements for very low paying positions (as they usually are), seeking scholars of a few countries in Africa. The next factor was watching from a distance as the USC anthropology department was fielding applications for a new position. There were not dozens of applications – there were hundreds, and from people with long publishing histories, all from the top tier programs at the time.

I realized quickly after that I could not justify continuing on with more graduate school. The math was fairly stark: Endure additional crushing debt load, to take that fairly small chance that I might get the job I want, at a salary that would barely cover my debt, rent and food, in an environment that I really didn’t like all that much.

Understand, I was never much for the publish or perish game, or the nasty politics that can emerge in academic departments, so I was ill suited to the profession anyway.  But that is not the reality I was thinking about at the time. I remember the moment I knew I was going to quit pursuing the quest for a PhD.  It was devastating.  I called up a friend of mine that had made the same choice after going ABD and bawled my eyes out.  “It has all been a complete waste,” I told her, “All the years, all the work, all the money has all been flushed down a toilet and I have nothing to show for it.” I don’t remember what she said to be honest.  I am sure it was supportive and reassuring and none of what I was thinking was true.

I can tell you this much: all of the thoughts I had about not getting my PhD equaling failure were and are utter bullshit. Why do I say that? Here is what happened once my head cleared, I got the emotional cobwebs out and started to assess what I wanted to do.

I wanted to keep studying culture, I wanted to be involved in technology and I wanted to get my hands dirty using anthropology to actually do something. First I got a job working full-time at the university as a computer jock, and I started by regaining my life: I got involved in the local old-time and Irish music scene in the area, I made friends that had nothing to do with anthropology, I worked with a friend leading canoe trips on the local river and started rock climbing and generally having a pretty happy life.

And I also did research, lots of research into the life I wanted. I scanned journals and periodicals, professional trade journals looking for any connections of people working in anthropology or social science and technical fields.  Design Anthropology was in its infancy then, and I was lucky enough to find an article about some anthropologists combining anthropology and technology skills to help companies develop new products. Then by coincidence, another graduate student appeared in my office and showed me an article about the very same company and said “I think I found your job.” She was right of course, after that it was just about the job hunt (another long post). Was all my education and training a waste? Hardly. I was a trained anthropologist, with extensive technical expertise, had years of experience watching how people interact with technology, and had a couple of years’ experience in a consulting environment from my previous graduate degree. Those were all qualifications people were looking for. Once I cracked the code of what I wanted to do, and where it was valued, I was fielding multiple offers precisely due to all the effort I initially thought I had wasted by not getting the PhD.

For me, it was far and away the best choice then and is now. I have had a great career, multiple actually, and for all of them that MA in anthropology has been a major factor in my getting those positions. At this point, I really don’t have a personal or professional need for a PhD, and a vanity PhD seems like a waste of everyone’s time on already strained university budgets.

So, that’s why I didn’t get a PhD.

RIP Sociology, or the Most Successful Discipline of the Twentieth Century?

Last December, Julie lamented the decline of Sociology as a discipline in an essay provocatively titled “RIP Sociology.” As Julie noted in her post, it seems that the discipline no longer had the vim and verve she remembers from her undergraduate and graduate days of only 10 or 20 years ago. She laments with Les Back the dominance of “the audit culture” in sociology which avoids big questions in favor of some arbitrary metric, and in particular refuses to ask students to wrestle with big problems, or engage the broader society with a sociological imagination. At the end of her essay, Julie noted that this seems to be highlighted by a “hardening” of disciplinary boundaries, as the remaining sociologists hunker down, and resist the contamination of collaboration with people from outside the discipline.

Well, I have some good-bad news for Julie. This battle is already over, and in a strange way Sociology won big time. The fact of the matter is that Sociology is one of the big winners of the twentieth century. Today, it is unimaginable to operate a university, or any other institution, without the intellectual gifts that sociology bequeathed society. Everytime you see a pie chart, view the results of a questionnaire, or discuss the “unintended consequences” of a social policy, you are discussing sociology.

Indeed, the techniques of the “audit culture” that Julie and Les Back lament are nothing but an outgrowth of the statistical techniques Emile Durkheim (and others) wrote about in books like Suicide. The statistical techniques used to analyze social data were by and large developed by sociology, and the related social sciences. Their use today is so taken-for-granted that no government report would be written without discussions of correlations, and statistical significance.

Theoretically, sociology is doing better—terms from Marx, Weber, Merton, Bourdieu and others are taken advantage in day-to-day discourse. Bureaucracy is an epithet because Weber identified the phenomenon in the first place. Merton told us about self-fulfilling prophecies, while popularizing a term that in the sociology of science that is on Google Scholar’s landing page (“On the Shoulders of Giants”). Weber’s definition of the state (monopoly over the legitimate use of force…), and identification of the “Protestant work ethic” are at the heart of many policy discussions.

Gender and sexuality have emerged as social categories during the last fifty years largely in response to findings of sociologists. Then there are terms like social capital, and cultural capital. And Social Class. And ideology. And marketing. There is no shortage of sociological imagination in society today—in fact these terms are so common-sensically trite that it seems fair to say that the sociological imagination is the imagination of modern society. And on and on—to the point where one President Ronald Reagan was a sociology major, one of the most important senators of the 20th century, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a sociology professor, and even the daughter of one President, and sister of another, Dorothy Bush Koch. And that’s just on the right. The sociological imagination permeates the political left. Sociology: we won the twentieth century! The world is aware of sociology! Declare victory!

Just how successful is sociology? Well it is so successful that the practice of sociology is now taken for granted in departments like Communications Studies, Literary Criticism, Business, Social Work, Social History, Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Culture Studies, Peace Studies, International Relations and so forth. Many of these programs are just versions of Sociology—and they need faculty too. But alas, you would never know that Sociology is so successful on the university campuses from which it emerged, where sociology departments scramble with everyone else to preserve themselves. They even struggle with the many daughter disciplines, often in an unseemly fashion.

And what are they teaching? Primarily applied sociology, with a little theory development thrown in. Even the computer scientists who designed social media are practicing sociologists, at least according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And on and on

Can sociologists really complain about so much success?

Next blog: The other successful disciplines of the twentieth century: Psychology and Cultural Anthropology.

Academic Meetings, Graduation Season, and a Bit from Rousseau

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead.

Perhaps Rousseau was thinking of such academic meetings when he wrote in the 19th century “On this showing, the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them” (Rousseau).

Which of course starts me thinking about the many times I do indeed act like a herded cow, and so do my fellow academics. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune in an ungainly outfit, and then with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison moving rhythmically just like the her do cattle waiting to obediently rush down a chute, at the end of which we might, ro all we know, be devoured. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like the potted plants on stage. In fact, when I sat on a stage recently in Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students and their families felt.

But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings.

Honoratioren are invited for their notability and prestige, are there to make such rituals work, for the professional who Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber says Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting sheep,” content and sated notables who herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1]

We potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at the other ends of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00. Or if you are in a legislative body, or corporate board of directors, the meeting is held in Las Vegas, Hawaii, or some other luxury place where the vanity of the Honoratioren is most easily plied with drink, food, song, and sex.

Being so plied indeed is part of the job of an Honoratioren, where you grimly hold onto an ethic that one hard-bitten politician explained was “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. Because yes indeed, we did not give into the sin of vanity.

The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, demurely pour the coffee, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren.

The lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” serve the coffee and shove files under our noses, to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered. We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly.

This is necessary because we Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, we don’t know that much about what we are doing; and are really only “dilletantes” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic sausage factory where real decisions are made.

Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).

But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s (and Rousseau’s) “herding bovine” metaphor is a good on—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?”

 

References

Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).

 

“Politics as Vocation” is One of Bill Clinton’s Very Favorite Books—But Our New Translation Doesn’t Have a Book Blurb!

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Earlier this year, my wife and I published a book Weber’s Rationalism, which included four new translations of Weber’s essays, including “Politics as Vocation.” President Bill Clinton lists on his web-site “Politics as Vocation” as being one 21 of his favorite all-time books, right up there with Yeats Poems, The Imitation of Christ, and his wife Hillary’s book Living History. I am of course intrigued about why one of the master politicians of this era thought so highly of Weber’s essay, and wrote to him via his web site. What would Bill Clinton think about how Weber wrote about the dangerous vanity of politicians, the assumption that politicians are always violent, while admitting that indeed, there are ways for the “true human” to be a good politician—“In Spite of it All!”

So I wrote Clinton at his office in New York to tell him about our new translation, to inquire about the possibility of getting a book blurb—admittedly an audacious request. Such favors, as Weber notes, are primarily for “table companions,” political Honoratioren,” and the other who whirl around the politician basking in power. I knew this well from translating Weber. But still it was a small request, and I hoped for at least a polite “no thanks” from one of his staffers.

Then this week, the reason why I did not get a response to my emails—not even a courteous “no thanks” from a staffer—became more apparent. I do not pay to play. News stories of the last week highlight how much the Clintons ask to speak or consult. I don’t pay, so I guess, so no response. (Actually I do pay sometimes—earlier this year I paid $35 to publish a cartoon!) Anyway, should have listened more closely to the cynical Max Weber inside of me!

But despite it all, I do indeed have some nice book blurbs, two from important Weber scholars, and a third one from an important political scientist. They all highly recommend our translation, and they did so simply as an academic courtesy to the publisher.

Speaking of academic courtesy, here is a commentary that the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Schmidt, once wrote about Weber’s essay, “Politics as Vocation”—he gave it as a speech to the Kant Congress in 1981 (in German).

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

My Mass Grave Rediscovered!

In 1994-1995 I helped finance and dig a mass grave on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.   This happened because the refugee assistance agency I worked (TCRS) removed bodies from the Kagera River from June 1994-June 1995. Tanzanians were hired to first clean up the bodies that were there from earlier months when the genocide was occurring, and after that to make a “net” to catch any other bodies which might float down the river from whatever source.  The “Body Project” during this time took 917 bodies (or so) out of the river. 311 came out in June-July, 1994, which is when the genocide was still going on. But then 606 more victims came down the river after the genocide was “over” and caught in the net we made. These were fresh bodies who often arrived with their hands tied behind their back, and a bullet in the head. We asked one of the Rwandan border guards from the new government who the floaters might be, and he said they were either victims of the genocide committed by the former government, or perhaps had committed suicide. It was clear from what he said that there was to be no blame for the new government.

We tried to imagine the gymnastics involved with tying your hands behind your back, shooting yourself in the head, and then jumping in the river. Somehow it didn’t compute.

Anyway, we made reports to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who passed the reports up to Geneva, where there was finally some view that perhaps things were not as peaceful as the new Rwandan government asserted. This was important at the time because the international community very much wanted the refugees to return to Rwanda so that they would not have to pay to succor them in the large Tanzanian refugee camps established in 1994.

Which caused us to wonder: Who was sending us these bodies, and what were they trying to say to us and the world? Here is what I wrote in January 1995 after a particularly busy December when 80 new victims came floating down the river:

So who is sending bodies to TCRS’s “body project” so faithfully? Is it the new Rwandan government? A revitalized Interahamwe militia [from the old government]? Both? I still do not know. However, my own conclusion after six months of collecting and burying 700 bodies is that both sides like the polarizing effects that bodies in the river creates among the 400,000 Hutu refugees in nearby Ngara refugee camps. The Hutu militants of course want the population to remain the refugee camps so they can organize a resistance movement. The Rwandan government on the other hand is avoiding the politically untenable consequences of…the millions of Hutus outside Rwanda returning. Seemingly, the bodies in the river serve both parties. Certainly, this would explain the ambivalence both sides have for the continuing appearance of bodies in the Kagera River.

Bob 2

In the strange world I lived in at the time, 917 bodies did not seem all that much—after all the death toll from the genocide and its aftermath is typically estimated at 800,000. At many of these sites in Rwanda, there are today massive memorials, and a national holiday when respects are made there. Forensic anthropologists sometimes go to evaluate how the victims, who were killed by the former Rwandan government. They evaluate how they died, and seek to identify victims, most of whom were from the minority Tutsi group who were the target of the genocide.

TCRS made a memorial too—a monument with words in four languages (English, French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda) which was dedicated in 1996 just before I left Tanzania, and then forgotten. After all, our memorial was a couple of kilometers inside Tanzania, and the victims probably included a lot of victims from the new (and current) government of Rwanda. So our memorial had weeds grow up around it. No memorial services, and no archaeologists. No on has ever contact me, either, even though I published about it in my 2001 book Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan. As for victims, only one has ever been identified—Ngirabatware son of Rubashurwelere whose Rwandan i.d. was sticking out of his pocket, and given to me in August 1994 still smelling of his death. For what it is worth, he is a Hutu, not Tutsi.

Bob 1

Our memorial was rediscovered in 2009, according to press reports, and there are plans to create a memorial there as well, according to later reports.  So my mass grave was lost and found in a period of 14 years. In the process, though, the memorial has become a “genocide” memorial—which means that the fact that so many of the victims were post-genocide execution victims, and arrived in Tanzania after the genocide ended is forgotten.

As for Ngirabatware, the Hutu victim we buried, I have never heard from his family, despite publishing his name in my book (p. 195).   He was born in 1957 and is from Cyabinbungu prefecture. He had four daughters born between 1980 and 1992. Maybe they are still in Rwanda wondering what happened to their father.

The Tattooed Professor Takes on the Big U and Wins

Kevin, The Tattooed Professor from the Harvard of East Des Moines posted a quick rebuttal to Professor Mark Bauerlein’s New York Times op-ed complaining about the skills of students Bauerlein teaches at elite Emory University in Atlanta. Kevin’s rebuttal is worth reading. Bauerlein’s article, which is written without much broader context beyond the hallowed halls of Emory is not nearly as original—it is mainly a “whatever happened to today’s youth” diatribe. I.e. the sort of thing that should not go beyond a faculty bull session, much less appear in the New York Times.

Indeed the most original, and under-cited thing I’ve ever read is William Perry’s article “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts” which was written about an undergraduate who managed to score an A- on a Harvard Exam without ever showing up to class. But that’s another story for another blog. In the meantime, I highly recommend this article to both Kevin and Bauerlein. Kevin who teaches four classes per semester and cranked out his response within 24 hours, will probably have time to read it, because he is accustomed to “time management.” The guy from the Big U, I’m not so sure—he’s probably too busy with his research commitments, New York Times op ed, and conferencing to read something about undergraduate education.

The Three Gifts of Tenure

Scarlet Letter

I will say it up front. Tenure is cool, and the opposite, “contingent” employment, really sucks. I was an adjunct for about two years in the 1990s, and I know from first hand experience that it sucked. Why?

Well there were a couple of reasons. First, was that I was constantly on the job market, since I did not know where my income was coming from the following semester. This is a condition that college teachers share with many workers in the modern economy, on the funny assumption that the more scared you are of catastrophe, the harder you will work.

But scared teachers do not develop their repertoire, either in teaching or research. Delivering a 15 week class takes 3-4 semesters to “get right,” meaning to get the rhythm of what you need to say, how it fits together, what assignments fit in best. And of course the jokes need to be right—and that takes practice, too. Three to four times, and it starts becoming easy—and 10-12 times it becomes boring, as your “lecture” notes yellow and turn stale.

A second gift of tenure is the capacity to develop a research program—you can only do this if you have a reasonable confidence of continued income. Research programs, whether they are your own, or your graduate students, take several years to manage and develop. Books? About five years. Articles, a little less.  Such projects do not fit in well to semester-to-semester contracts.

And the third gift of tenure is that it puts you on an equal footing with your “boss.” This is important because, well, not all bosses, are that great at supervising teachers, whether they are tenured or not—just ask the adjuncts who are indeed supervised by Department Chairs elected by the tenured faculty.

This part of the gift of tenure has two different causes. First is the fact that teaching is inherently difficult to supervise—a supervisor cannot really “supervise” more than a fraction of their work, nor can they use a clock, or other mechanism to monitor anything of significance in the classroom. This is something that those who supervise teaching should know, but often do not acknowledge.  Or rather they invent proxies like “Student Evaluation of Teaching,” which ask students about their experience, or ask you what you have printed on your syllabus, as if that is really what happens in class.

The second part of the “chair” problem is that the chairs and deans who hire adjunct faculty are not necessarily very good managers of adjuncts—they are hired by tenured faculty to serve (not manage) tenured faculty. Supervising adjuncts is for them just a side gig—the real action is with those who elected them, i.e. the tenure track faculty. As a result many are not necessarily very good at managing “contingent employees.” What does it mean to be lousy at supervising adjuncts?

–Not let the adjunct know what they will be teaching or take away an assigned class and give it to a tenured person at last minute

–Say or do anything which lets contingent employees believe that they might not have a job next semester/year.

–Change up preps unexpectedly–or change class sizes erratically

–Use anecdotal student gossip to write reviews, whether it comes in hushed tones in the office, through written reviews, informal discussion with tenured faculty, or ratemyprofessor.com.

–Publish a job ad with the classes taught by contingent employees in them.

–Otherwise keep the adjunct off-balance regarding their professional status.

And then of course there is the problem of pay, which like it or not is central what we do. The stories of adjuncts on welfare are of course legion. Not every campus does it, but paying $2,000-$3000 per class for a full-time adjunct (with ten courses being a full-load) is a recipe for penury, short-term employment, and high employee turnover. And what can I say? Quick turnover of teachers is harmful to teaching quality—and in the university world, “quick” means every 5-6 years. After all, how can you prepare a “full quiver” of classes in a shorter time? Student success suffers from teachers who are not treated as highly skilled professionals, and have a tougher time developing as a professional as a result.

And this says nothing of a research program which oddly enough, some adjuncts still put together on the side.

My Appreciation for Tenure

I’ve been on tenure track since 1998, and had tenure since 2003.  This has indeed been a blessing, particularly when I compare my working conditions to my adjunct colleagues who are under constant threat of lay-off. What has it permitted me to do?

Accept new course preps, and explore new fields without fear of short-term failure, which in the adjunct world means a few students complaining to a dean or chair about you. Sometimes this happened, mostly it didn’t—but even when it does, I can be confident that the comments will not be taken out of context.

Re-establish the Asian Studies major, for which I was a “voluntary advisor” for three years. This is something I am enormously proud of—and would not have done without the freedom of tenure protections.  I was also able to participate in “General Education Reform” in a fashion which I hoped reflected abstract academic goals for student achievement, rather than the narrow “butts in seats” metrics of standard university administration by “full-time equivalent students (FTES).”

Publish six books, an write a number of articles, one of which received a comeuppance letter from the politically connected United States Ambassador to Tanzania. Because I was tenure track, I got an “attaboy” from my Chair at the time. Imagine if I had been contingent—I would have been afraid that such a high government official could get me fired, or at least put in the pathway of “I’m sorry it looks like there are no classes for you next semester.”

In short, my employment guarantee gives me the freedom to experiment without fear to my livelihood. Do some of my colleagues take advantage of this? Probably—but the fact of the matter is that the freedom my tenure gives me exists only in such a context. If I didn’t have an employment guarantee I would be back to sending out my c.v. every semester and keeping my head low in hopes that I could put together a living, rather than developing a scholarly career.

I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!

The opposite of tenure, lack of employment security, though actually drags the institution of higher education down further. To understand this, I need only listen to the whispered fears of my adjunct colleagues. They fear trying new things, requesting professional courtesies I take for granted, requesting justified raises, attending conferences, taking on new preps, or pushing back when more students are pushed at them.  Indeed the ability of administrators to push more students at the adjuncts is why they typically teach teach larger sections than their tenured colleagues. Adjuncts are also hesitant about expressing themselves frankly in meetings. Many fear becoming involved in the union not because of what the union does, but because they fear administrators will deliver the dreaded and vague message, “next semester we do not have any classes for you.”

This post is an adaptation of “I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes for You!” which was posted in January 2015 here at Ethnography.com.

Big data, Small Data, and Everything In-between

The New York Times this morning had a nice story “How Not to Drown in Numbers” about big and small data written by social scientists who’ve worked for Google and Facebook, respectively. The article is good news for both qualitative and quantitative social scientists, and all of us in-between. Numbers are indeed important, but they are not everything. Interpreting data is still about the capacity to reason and interpret data—it is just that there is a lot more of it out there than before the internet age. In other words, there will be no shortage of work in coming decades for sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists or others among us!