Higher Education Expands Worldwide, but Contracts in California?

During the last nine years, I squeezed guest teaching gigs in Tanzania, Germany, and China in-between my duties at Chico State. Each time I do this, I am impressed by the vibrancy of growing university systems abroad and the rapid expansion of higher education opportunities. Each country is pushing more of their students into post-secondary institutions. Indeed, there is a Europe-wide goal of having at least 40% of all 30-34 year olds graduating at the level of a US Bachelor’s degree by 2020 (The US and California have been stuck at 25-30% since about 1970). Each place I’ve visited also seeks to “internationalize” their curricula, by which they mean sending students abroad, receiving faculty and students from other countries, and offering classes in English. This is all very exciting for someone coming from moribund California where internationalization is viewed primarily in terms of “revenue generation,” in other words, a way to soak outsiders for the cost of running our universities, and not necessarily a value for its own sake.

Inevitably the rapid growth I saw abroad resulted in some nutty stuff—and you hear about it. My German colleagues complained about the pains of uncoordinated rapid growth, and the fact that expanding student bodies, do not keep up with faculty hires. Lack of coordination in student loan disbursements in Tanzania resulted in a student strike, tear gas in my house, and the mid-semester cancellation of my classes. In China and Germany, students bragged that their English skills are better than the faculty—as indeed they are as a result of improved foreign language instruction during the 1990s when they were in primary school. And the university I visited in China had a massive new library at the entrance to the university which I fear will become a digital-age white elephant.

In all three countries, students complained about the high cost of student fees/tuition, just like they do in California. It is just that the magnitude is different. In Germany students protested recent imposition of tuition at public universities which were briefly set at 500 Euros per semester (about $633), before being eliminated in most states. Perhaps the nuttiest thing occurred at a rapidly internationalizing university when I presented a class to one student (it was a great class!), due to a scheduling mistake on the part of a host overeager to offer an English language sociology course.

But then it is always back to California where we have real complaints. The tuition bills at CSU are about $7000 per year, $13,200 per year at UC, and even the Community Colleges run about $2000 for a full-time 30 unit load. California has declining student enrolments, faculty numbers which decline faster, and curricular offerings which go down even more quickly. Many public universities in the United States cut class times via various furlough programs. The United States (led by California) in the past led college completion rates for adults aged 30-34—but in recent years was surpassed by countries like Korea, Canada, Japan, and Ireland. This will put the United States at a competitive disadvantage in future world labor markets for decades to come, a fact that logically will lead to yet further decline.

On top of everything else, instead of encouraging the internationalization other countries seek, the United States discourages enrolment by international students with complicated student visa requirements and a reluctance to recognize foreign degrees. For example, my own students at the Chico State are discouraged by risk management concerns from CSU headquarters in Long Beach that ultimately drive up students costs for study abroad—with the result that our own efforts to “internationalize” our student bodies are restrained.  And woldn’t it be nice if our students could complain that their Spanish (or Chinese) skills are better than their faculty!  Somehow, this is not in the cards in a state where foreign language instruction is being cut back.  (Still there is some good news for CSU headquarters in Long Beach: we don’t need a new massive library like I saw in China, though it would be nice if Chico State’s browsing collections were maintained, and the supply of books—print or e-copies— kept up with the book reviews!)

In other words, I have seen the consequences of both rapid growth and institutional contraction. I’ll take the chaotic growth of Germany, China, and Tanzania over the institutional stagnation in California any day.

Ultimately, the rapid growth of public education abroad happens because governments in other countries value higher education in ways that California no longer does. And most importantly, taxpayers abroad are willing to pay for higher education. Hidden behind the student protests I observed in Tanzania and Germany, was a shared belief that the general public benefits from a well-educated population. The protests appealed effectively, albeit sometimes clumsily, to this value. This value was of course shared by Californians in the past—thus the rapid expansion of California’s higher education system by the grandparents of my students in the decades after World War II. Such benefits, of course, were reaped by me and my fellow baby boomers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The question for today’s baby boomers is whether they will be able to return the favor by supporting our own children in a way that the rest of the world does.

Why I chose not to get a PhD

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 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 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.


American Anthropological Association Reassures Worried Nation faced with Mayan Apocalypse

1 APRIL 2012 (Ethnography.com Newswire) Washington, DC – American Anthropological Association Reassures Worried Nation faced with Mayan Apocalypse

In light of the coming end of the world, The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has announced its official Continuity Plan to insure the nations vital resource of cultural anthropologists remains intact during the cannibalistic orgy of violence immediately following the end of days on December 21, 2012.

According to AAA President Charles Gusmallian “Cultural Anthropology is uniquely positioned to explain the coming Apocalypse.  We have a grip on the intricacies of Mayan culture, and also a unique view of how people behave when totally screwed.  Psychology can’t do that, economics can’t do that, and biology can’t do that.  Only Cultural Anthropology.  We also have a large backlog of unemployed PhD.s  Talk about win-win-win!  So while people are attempting to scrape up the last radioactive morsels of food from the earth in a useless attempt to postpone their inevitable gut-wrenching death, we are sure they will take comfort in knowing the AAA will maintain a rigorous Institutional Review Board structure, not to mention connecting scientifically with the nature of Mayan gods.”

The President of the AAA Section for Prophecy Science, George Tsoukalos, said anthropologists have been working hard to pinpoint the date of the end of the world and but only recently have retrieved hard scientific evidence. The discovery that pregnant Jersey Shore cast member Snooki has December 21, 2012 as a due date adds the final layer of certainty to the prophesy.  According to Dr. Tsoukalos this clearly relates to the Quatrain #12-1639 of the infallible prophet Nostradamus:

From the womb of an Eastern shore it comes
The dame suckles the wine of the thorny Cactaceae
The Destroyer is conceived in besotted tragedy
He will of orange hue be revealed in her image

Tsoukalos clarified “There is only one possible interpretation, my research shows this clearly refers to a “Jersey Shore” cast member giving birth to some form of vile unholy man thing, possibly resembling a cross between a Hobbit and a crack-addicted Oompa-Loompa with an unquenchable thirst for human flesh.”

Charles Gusmallian outlined the continuity plan to the national media “Prior to the end of the world, the AAA executive staff and the presidents of the various sections will be moved to an undisclosed but sacred location where they will perform sacred dances from every culture of the world until it is determined safe to emerge onto the surface. We have adequate food stores for several years along with several dozen tenure hungry assistant professors to take care of the scut work and defend the facility from the ravening hordes. Additionally, we are carrying all of the most relevant research conducted by cultural anthropologists in the last 30 years.”

Dr. Tsoukalos then chose an paper at random “Look at this one for example; ‘The Use of The Freshwater Trumpet Snail as a Metaphor for the Neo-Imperialist Dialogical Precepts of the Yanamamo Peoples Proto-Marxist Views of Post-Modern Modernity Through the Medium of Modern Dance.’ This is the kind of information people are going to need to rebuild a society.”

This announcement comes as part of the AAA’s 5th official warning to the worlds governments in regards to end of the world on December 21th 2012. The President of the AAA Section for Prophecy Science, continued: “Despite multiple warnings and our extensive public outreach using such peer-reviewed television programming such as “Ancient Aliens,” “The Nostradamus Effect,” and using AAA funding to produce the movie “2012,” people are still unprepared for the anthropologically correct end of the world only 264 days from today. Unlike those hacks at the Centers for Disease Control who believe in fanciful notions such as Zombie attacks (http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm) and social constructions they call a “virus,” dedicated anthropologists have been doing real research into the Mayan prophesy. Gusmallian closed the media event stating “Really, anything you do from here on out is pretty much futile” and shotgunned a beer.