Other than blog, that is. Jodi has a post on this, which has sparked some somewhat heated discussion. I started to write a comment but it got long enough that I figure it’s politer to post it here.

I thought the post was funny, and instructive in an over-the-top way. I do take issue with some of the comments in discussion, though. I agree that there’s nothing heroic or radical about going to grad school. On the other hand, I find Jodi’s remarks that every grad student knows what they’re in for as simply inaccurate.

I’m in my second year of a PhD program and I’m nearing thirty. I went to grad school because I didn’t know how to do anything else. I worked in NGOs as an organizer for several years but I couldn’t do the 50-80 hour work weeks anymore (and not in the sense of the high workload of academics either, I was out of the house the whole time and had very little flexibility). I was part of a unionization attempt to improve things at one place, and we lost. My options at that point were stay in the field or stay with my partner. I chose the latter, and worked really crap jobs (seven and eight bucks an hour for night shift) where I got laid off and fired repeatedly. I couldn’t find other work due to a combination of lack of marketable skills and employers being weirded out by resume. After about two years of this, grad school seemed like the only option. I was not aware of the employability aspects of grad school except in a dim way. Now, one could say, quoting or paraphrasing Jodi, that I “should be” or should have been “fully aware of [my] prospects and not delude [myself]” but that ought doesn’t help anyone with the is of the present conditions in the higher education industry. Similarly, I think Jodi’s simply wrong when she says the following about incoming or prospective graduate students:

“you know that you have a less than a 25% chance at a tenure track job in a 4 year college or university. You don’t go for the career. You go out of passionate idiocy, because you can’t think of yourself as doing anything else.”

This is undoubtedly true in some cases, but not in all. I didn’t know this coming in, and I didn’t feel like I had much of an alternative by the time I became more aware of this. In any case, between the 8$ night shift at the grocery store, I’ll take this gig, but for a lot of people in grad school we stay not so much because we can’t imagine doing anything else but rather because there’s not much of another economic option, at least not in the short term (2-5 years can be forever when it’s chronic unemployment and lack of insurance, especially when you want to start having kids) – the silent compulsion of the market operates in our industry too, making the move to something else given the economic circumstances some of us are in is a real trial.

Schools are not up front about this in anyway, grad programs being moneymaking and cheap labor institutions. I’m still happy to be here, compared to my other options – I like to teach, I generally like what I get paid to read and write, it’s nice to know I don’t have to job hunt again for a few years, and conditions are reasonable (but not incredible) compared to other jobs I’ve had. That doesn’t change the fact that in many ways conditions are poor and pay is low – I’m glad that one of the discussants, Candice, can live on $1200 a month in Chicago, but I had a really hard time living on that in Chicago, and I always had roommates. I want to suggest that that amount of money looks different when it feels temporary (as grad programs are quick to claim to keep grad students from getting too upset) and when you’re not trying to start a family. I also want to suggest that claims about and outrage over lowering standards of living and declining real wages aren’t compatible with justification of low wages in academic work without some rhetorical jumping through hoops.

And I think it’s really problematic when Jodi says “[i]f you get a job, it is an extraordinary privilege. You are not entitled to it–in the US no one is entitled to work.” One can’t be consistent and on the one hand morally decry the absence of a right to work then on the other uphold the status of a job in higher education as a privilege. That there is no entitlement to a job actually makes _every_ job a privilege according to Jodi’s argument here. I doubt she really thinks that or approves of it.

I expect that Jodi thinks that there is a moral right, so to speak, to employment but that this right doesn’t hold or doesn’t hold the same way in higher education – something about higher education is different from other work such that employment in higher education is _really_ a privilege, one with more substance (ie, one that is less morally problematic) than the being-a-privilege quality of every job according to her argument. That’s not the case, though. Just as there’s nothing heroic or radical about higher education work, there’s nothing special about it either. It’s waged labor like any other, no more and no less unique than any other.

All of that said, Jodi’s rule of thumb about making candidate need one criterion for hiring (such that ABDs are less likely to get selected than fully minted PhDs because the ABDs still have some access to things at their home U as students) strikes me as a decent upstanding way to proceed.

The above is part of why I don’t find defenses of tenure compelling – given present market trends, tenure is for a labor aristocracy that shades into lower and middle management. I’d rather see tenure ended and have security on the job result from unionization. If that happened the only people who’d end up less secure are faculty who serve as management (power to hire and fire excludes them from the bargaining unit), which wouldn’t trouble me at all.