Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Arms Races, Graduate Studies and the Academy, Oh my!

I'm not usually one to write "Read the Whole Thing" (tm), but I have to say that about this post by Conscientious Objector. And also see this post, too. Objector identifies some of the problems with my position that the 'arms race' between applicants for professor jobs has led to a great improvement in the quality of younger faculty, with beneficial results for students, the academy, and society as a whole. I also mentioned that the applicants themselves suffer for this arms race, being caught up in a 'Red Queen effect," where they have to keep running faster and faster just to stand still. Objector points out a crucial point that I missed: although the arms race may create great benefits, the penalty is not only paid by the aspiring professors, but also by society as a whole, as effort that could have been put to more socially-useful projects is expended on, say, graduate studies that don't turn into careers. It's so refreshing that someone in this debate recognizes the problems of trade-offs and sees how real economic analysis (instead of crypto-marxist special pleading) could be used in social analysis, that I'm tempted to just stop there and say, "he's right," but (I'm from New Jersey; I can't resist the urge to argue), let me add a couple of things.

Although I recognize the trade-off, I'm not sure that the calculation of much traded-off effort is very straightforward. As the correspondent whom I previously paraphrased wrote, people can be better off simply from having done graduate study. That is, spending a lot of time examining Beowulf can serve to make a person wiser, smarter, or simply a happier and better person. Think of the hours people put into studying history, or science outside formal graduate studies (as an example, some of my friends in Missouri, who didn't have college degrees, knew an incredible amount of marine biology because of the effort they spent on fishtanks. Their lives were definitely enriched by this study; why wouldn't graduate work be just as good?). It's hard to know how to value this enrichment vis a vis the cost in years and dollars of a graduate degree that doesn't lead to a job, but I think that there's a lot of value for many people.

That leads me to the John Bruce, who is much less sanguine.
I do disagree with the notion that both Michael and Jay seem to agree on, that the intense competition produces a higher level of faculty even at the lowest-tier institutions. I think there's increasing recognition that when the job market is so overcrowded, it's almost impossible for institutions to make rational choices. Among other things, the perceived value of a tenure track job is so great to the applicant -- and its value as something to award is so great to the hiring authority -- that corruption is bound to enter the system, the same way it does in the "third world", where there's a greater oversupply of qualified applicants for middle-class jobs.

My own sense is that the social and institutional impacts of the graduate student oversupply include a tolerance in universities for petty corruption, especially nepotism and other back-scratching deals among faculty and administrators, which often center on hiring, retention, and promotion. The faculty oversupply can also be seen (a couple of lectures later in Econ 101) as a student shortage. The forms of price discounting now offered to students certainly include the tacit tolerance of cheating and the strategic unwillingness of faculties and administrations to enforce honor codes. The power of student evaluations (I never got to do these as an undergraduate myself, back in the baby boom when there was a student oversupply) has an impact on how rigorously professors feel they can teach or grade. What's the use of a highly qualified new professor if she can't give below an A-minus?

This is a very intelligently put version of the "lottery winners like the system" argument that some overheated commenters on Elizabeth Carnell's blog and Tim Burke's blog have made. I can only argue from experience, not from statistics or some kind of overall view of the job market, but in my experience, both in job searching and in being on a number of hiring committees, the job market doesn't seem to work this way.

There are lottery elements. If there are 150 applicants for a total of 25 jobs (the situation in medieval lit when I went on the market), then there are all kinds of things that get you bounced into the reject box that, upon closer reading of an application letter, shouldn't be disqualifications (i.e., one of my rules of thumb is that if someone applying to Wheaton doesn't mention teaching in the first paragraph of the letter, I stop reading; like all rules of thumb, it's a way of saving time at the expense of accuracy: the person who doesn't mention teaching may actually be a great teacher but didn't write a good letter, etc.). But I'm not sure it's a lottery: when you look at the people who have gotten jobs in Old English over the past five years (choosing that interval to leave myself out), for example, it's pretty meritocratic: I would have identified all of the people who got the good Anglo-Saxon jobs as the smartest, most capable graduate students. It's much more like a Darwinian competition: some luck, some inherent qualities.

There is, however, a big problem with the system the isn't cured by the 'arms race,' and that is the tendency of trendy of hot-sounding projects to stand out to a hiring committee that has no expert in the sub-discipline. The feedback from this problem tends to draw savvy graduate students towards trendy work that may or may not be what the student really wants to do or what the discipline needs. For example, it's very hard to get hired as a metricist, but we could use some young blood in that field. And on the other side, studies of violence in Saint's lives are starting to seem a little played out and tedious (though there's good work that recently published). This problem is a version of John's "corruption" argument in that hiring committees will often rely on dissertation directors making personal appeals, pulling strings, etc.

Also, again due to lack of sub-discipline expertise, hiring committees can be too easily distracted by superficial things, like overall reputation of institution. For example, Princeton hasn't produced a decent Anglo-Saxonist in a generation. Maybe the new Anglo-Saxonist will change that, but I wouldn't even consider candidates from Princeton, Northwestern, University of Chicago or Penn (just to name a few respected schools that have either lame or non-existent programs in Anglo-Saxon). And I would look closely at candidates from, say, Loyola-Chicago and Missouri (of course), Wisconsin, Arizona State, Illinois, Ohio State and Notre Dame (in fact, I'd prefer them to graduates of any ivy except, maybe, for Cornell). I agree with Objector to a certain extent that it's silly to think of one school as necessarily "better" than another in terms of general reputation. And that's true of students as well, which is why I so strongly oppose attempts to restrict the "supply" of graduate students by further restricting entry into programs. I think that the real-world application of that theory will be to eliminate students from less prestigious institutions or students with a less-than-perfect backgrounds (i.e., got a D in philosophy sophomore year). My best students at Wheaton are as good as the best students at any other school. The difference is, the ivies and other, more prestigious schools don't have matches to the bottom 50% of the students I teach (but even then, some of my best students have risen out of that bottom half).

The "oversupply" of graduate students also seems to me (and here I'm going on gut instinct) rather more upsetting to people associated with 'elite' universities, that is, people who are heavily invested in their ivy connections. In my experience, students with Yale or Harvard or Brown degrees who don't get academic jobs are much more convinced that the market is unfair or unbalanced than are students from, say, Loyola Chicago or Wayne State. It goes back to my very early post about the idea that following a particular path (A's in undergrad courses to an ivy Ph.D. program to a tenure-track job at an elite school) is no longer an entitlement to the job one wants. In that sense, the academy is just catching up to the larger society, in which credentials don't mean as much as they used to. That's not an unalloyed good, but there are some very good aspects to this change.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Arms Races and Graduate Studies

Well, that must have been confusing. A couple of days ago I linked to a blog I've been reading for a while In The Shadow of Mt Hollywood, but I got confused and thought that John Bruce, the author (and you should read his serialized novel on the blog if you don't mind getting sucked in), had made a comment about graduate students engaging in an 'arms race.'

John was understandably confused. The comment to which I was referring was by Conscientious Objector, whose blog I can't get to tonight, and I'd attributed it to John because I've kept reading Mt. Hollywood and thus assumed that was where I'd read the comment.

Ok, with that prologue, I'd better try to come up with something good. Objector had replied to one of my earlier posts where I'd discussed the problems with "the academic labor situation" (which, simply put, is that there are not enough tenure-track professor jobs for all the people who want to be tenure track professors). I had given some suggestions to graduate students who were seeking one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. Objector noted (kindly) that my advice was good, but there was a larger, structural problem: if every graduate student took my advice (to prep very early and very hard for the future job, to market themselves, to have article ready to publish the year you go on the market, etc.), then those graduate students would be engaging in what evolutionary biologists call an 'arms race.' As the competition between graduate students increased, positive feedback would ensure that more and more and more would be required of them. Thus following Drout's advice might work for any individual, but for the population as a whole it would generate more effort just to stay in place (this has also been called the Red Queen phenomenon).

I think this analysis is correct, and that the arms race has already been going on for quite a while. If, for instance, you look at the qualifications of the people who went on the job market in 1977, 1987 and 1997 (when I went on the market), I'm certain that you'd find a lot of people in the 70's whose dissertations weren't even done. In the 80's, the dissertations might be completed, and maybe one article would be in 'writing sample' stage. By the time you get to the 90's, you'd have people with multiple published articles in addition to the dissertation. Likewise with teaching experience. People in the 70's often had never actually taught a full semester before being dropped in front of a class. In the 80's, they'd probably taught one or two classes. When I started at Wheaton I'd taught more than 12 full-semester classes.

From the point of view of the creature caught in an arms race, it sucks. You're working as hard as you can to survive, and each year the goalposts move, making it harder. But (and here's where I think arms races are good), the population of people outside the arms race benefit a great deal from that race.

How can this be? Simple: more and more knowledge is getting produced from the same inputs of money (funding, student tuition, scholarships)and human capital (graduate students). In the 1970s, 20 graduate students might produce 20 dissertations and 1 article. In the 1990s 20 graduate students might produce 20 dissertations and 25 articles. That's a big improvement.

[Obviously I believe that articles are good things to produce. If you don't agree, and think that published articles are not a benefit to society, then this argument isn't for

The improvement in teaching is even better. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance there are simply no bad teachers left under 40 years old. It used to be that search committees often had to chose between a good teacher and a good researcher. No longer. You can now hire someone like Steve Harris, or Stacy Klein, or Drew Jones (to name just a few from my scholarly generation) who are excellent in the classroom and have major publications.

So everything is good, right? Well, not for the overworked graduate students who are running just to keep place. Not for the young assistant professors who now need more than just one book for tenure. Not for the young associate professors who have been so conditioned to the arms race that we still keep putting in ungodly hours so as to display amazing productivity. But for society as a whole, we're getting more stuff for the same price. That's the beauty created by the ruthlessness of competition.

And there are other problems. One is a little bit sad. Academia used to be a refuge for smart, unworldly people who wanted to spend their lives, say, trying to sort out the layers of scratch glosses in a group of Psalters. They didn't want to have to be "dynamic teachers", and media outreach people for their fields, and political operatives and tireless advocates. These people are getting pushed out. Academia is no longer a nice place where someone can have a quiet, not particularly well-paid but fulfilling career if you are too shy of lacking in social skills for other places. I honestly think this is unfortunate. Smart, shy people need somewhere to go, after all.

Even more significantly, there is a real question whether we're now producing too much scholarship and if it is of lesser quality. I don't know. There is a problem of fragmentation: sub-specialities becoming so specialized that no-one reads anyone else's work. I have to confess I have little interest in what's in PMLA anymore, though I read Anglo-Saxon England like the Bible. Web-publishing, etc. has led to such an increase in scholarship that it's getting harder and harder to keep up with. On the other hand, I think what's being published in Anglo-Saxon studies right now is so much better than a lot of the general literary studies published in the 70's and 80's, that there does seem to have been a general improvement.

Finally, I want to refer to an email that I received when this discussion was hot back in the winter. I don't have permission to quote or post, so I'll summarize: the emailer wrote: aren't I better off having become educated in the search for a Ph.D., whether or not I get a job as a professor? Isn't the real goal to learn more? Isn't that why you're supposed to be getting the privilege of spending your time studying?

I basically agree, though I also see where the critics are coming from, since the economists might say that all the brainpower could be put to better use. I don't know: a lot of brainpower is put into a lot of activities with possibly less social utility than graduate studies in English. And actually I begrudge none of it.

So that's my response to the 'arms race' idea and an explanation for John Bruce, who was wondering what the heck I was talking about.

P.S.: The previous post was edited to eliminate all those stupid errors, but I can't get Blogger to replace the post. Stupid Blogger!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Inside / Outside

A very good blog, to which I've linked before, In the Shadow of Mt Hollywood, has an interesting discussion of rejections of various kinds -- and also follow the links. (And someday I will get around to explaining why I think John Bruce is right in identifying an 'arms race' among graduate students, and why I -- contra him -- think this is a good thing).

I've received my share of rejections, for both fiction and non-fiction. One of my novels made it part way up the agent/publisher chain, only to die suddenly. I got a lovely personal rejection from the Ed-in-Chief at one of the two most respected magazine publishers of fiction. But I also got many, many form slip rejections.
For my scholarship there haven't been quite as many. Beowulf and the Critics got a form letter rejection from Oxford UP (suckers!), and I got an article rejected from Anglo-Saxon England with a one-sentence email (the article was published in another respected journal), and I got the harshest ever rejection from Anglia when the great Helmut Gneuss (and I'm not saying that sarcastically; he really is a giant in the field) hand-typed a list, in German, of all the stupid mistakes I'd made in an article (I learned that you don't want anyone describing any part of your work as a "mangel" -- trust me on this).

But the biggest difference between academic rejections and fiction rejections was that the academic ones almost always give you things to fix. So, due to Helmut Gneuss' generosity, especially given how stupid some of my errors were, I was able to make all the changes he and the other reviewer suggested and get the article accepted at an equally prestigious journal: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. And here's a link to the Table of Contents for this month, when my article, my most technical piece ever, will be published. Considering how much I sweated blood over this article (On Re-Dating the Old English Translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang), I (almost) feel like I deserve to be in the company I'm keeping in this issue.

But now that I'm on the inside, as an editor of Tolkien Studies, I of course think that editors aren't as evil and stupid as I used to. There's a strange paradox in editing: you're swamped with submissions and at the same time you have a lot of trouble finding what you're looking for. It's not that all the pieces are bad (not at all, actually), but many don't necessarily fit. One of the three editors doesn't agree that the piece is methodologically sound, or the piece wasn't written for a specialist audience, or the author doesn't seem up-to-date on relevant debates, or (and this has happened a couple times) something that looks fine to the editors gets nixed by the anonymous outside reader.

Now Tolkien Studies doesn't get as many submission as the Atlantic Monthly (thank God!), but it's still a struggle to search through to find the kinds of pieces that will make for an exciting issue: not too much overlap, a range of works considered, a blend of "big picture" discussion and technical things. I now have a new appreciation for what the editors at other publications are doing. I know I'm never trying to be cruel or discouraging (and I mean that; even if a piece isn't right for us at all, that's no guarantee that the next thing the author writes might not be perfect; I want to encourage him or her to submit that piece), but I have screwed up, and I can see how easy it is to damage someone unwittingly.

Writing: you slit your wrists, pour the blood on the page, and then strangers say it's not red enough. Crazy profession.