17.11.05

SIGNS OF A SICK INDUSTRY? More straight talk from the dean at Anonymous Community.

I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor. That’s not to say that adjuncting would be out of the question – those opportunities look to be plentiful for the foreseeable future – but I wouldn’t give up the day job.

The reasons have nothing to do with your ability, about which I know nothing. They have to do with the job market in the field, the length of training involved, and the opportunity costs.

The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage. I consider that unlikely to change, since the combination of increased vocationalism among students (the single largest undergraduate major in the US is business), cost pressures on colleges, and the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty means the only way for colleges to cut substantial costs is through hiring freezes.

All too true. (And those business degrees are in many cases noisy signals of true ability.) The Phantom Professor notes sickness in the working conditions as well, in a setting far removed from community college.

A new workout facility recently opened on the campus where I taught. It’s a marvel, complete with skylights, indoor climbing wall, indoor lap pool, water wall, state-of-the-art weight machines. You name it, they have the dernier cri of health club paraphernalia. To pay for this thing, the school raised tuition 6 percent over the past two years.

Elsewhere on campus, in many of the classrooms, students still sit on cracked plastic half-desks purchased in the 1960s. Ceiling tiles are missing in every building except the very newest. Water fountains don’t work. The main library is beset with mold and mildew. Air-conditioning and heat sputter under the cutting edge technology of the Reagan era.

But those things sit low on the list of repairs when surveys of prospective students reveal that a slick health club-like facility for doing squats, lunges and sit-ups a few times a week is a high priority when the country club kids are deciding which school to attend.

The unanswered question is whether the show rather than the substance is evolutionarily stable. (We have some of the same problems here. The space the deans grabbed for their unfinished showplace for legislators and corporate donors has doors with brass handles for future Monarchs of the Sea to polish up and other upscale trappings. The rest of the building, including the elevator lobby, still has the patched institutional ceramic tile walls and some recently broken ceiling tiles, casualties of the attempt to put 10 foot particle board desk tops onto an 8 foot tall elevator.)

Phantom also has a rather jaded view of enrollment management.

Early in the fall semester, departments throw tailgate parties and homecoming brunches to attract more students as majors. These are fun things to do and being a “fun major” is emphasized above all else.

Too much course work isn’t fun. Assignments and exams too numerous? Get rid of finals. Eliminate Friday classes. Dumb it all down and they will come. It will be more fun. Go drinking with your classes. Order in pizzas. Give more “group project” assignments that will let the strong lead the weak to higher grades. That's fun.

Want fries with that? There are market tests. Perhaps the Afghan unhappy with his experience at Yale was looking out the window the day the Principle of Derived Demand went up. Combine that with "economies of scale," an idea that ought to precede the von Neumann-Morgenstern utility function in the curriculum, and Yale's preparation of economics majors for the Wall Street banking houses, whether there's an element of fun, or not, makes a bit more sense. The student is not the consumer, the banking house, or the Fed's Board of Governors, or (for the adventurous) the economics faculty is.

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