Monday, November 28, 2011

73. Perceptions trump reality.

You really can build a career in academe by writing bogus nonsense (see Reason 35). You just have to persuade others to believe (or pretend) that your work makes sense and is—for one reason or another—significant. Others in your field will be willing to play along, because doing so allows them to rely on similar jargon and "theory" to produce their own work. In disciplines where research and scholarly production have little practical application, the value of scholarship rests entirely on the perception of its value. Where does the believing end, and the pretending begin? It is hard to say, especially with respect to one's own work. Some academics convince themselves of the importance of what they’re doing, others are plagued by doubt, while a clever few knowingly take advantage of a system that allows them to make a comfortable living.

In academe, perceptions often trump reality. The perception that there is a comfortable living to be made by anyone who earns a PhD provides graduate programs with a steady stream of applicants in spite of the realities of the job market (see Reason 55). Consider the academic hierarchy (see Reason 3), in which prestige matters much more than objective measurements of educational quality. If your university is perceived to be less than prestigious, you will be at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market regardless of the merits of your work. Valid or not, perceptions have real consequences. When William James (quoted in Reason 70) referred to graduate school dropouts as "social failures," he was expressing a perception that can make quitting grad school a traumatic experience (see Reason 11). For decades, the higher education establishment has lived off of the perception that academic degrees are worth their high price tags. If the changing perception of real estate value is any indication of what is in store for academe (see Reason 27), it would be a good idea to think again about betting your future on an academic career, even if you're confident that you would make a successful charlatan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

72. The humanities and social sciences are in trouble.

Graduate students who receive funding from their universities are very fortunate (see Reason 17). To their universities, they are very expensive. Of course, grad students and adjuncts are cheaper to employ than professors, but universities are moving away from relying on tenured and tenure-track faculty to meet their instructional needs. More than three quarters of college teaching appointments are now held by graduate-student, part-time, and non-tenure-track instructors (see Reason 14). As a result, universities have come to regard graduate-student labor not as a bargain but as the norm, and they are beginning to identify which graduate students are the most cost-effective to keep on campus. Those in the humanities and social sciences are used to thinking of themselves as being inexpensive compared to their colleagues in the hard sciences, but when it comes to graduate students, it turns out that that is not the case at all.

In August 2011, Yale University released the results of a remarkable study of its own graduate school. Among other things, it found that even at Yale only 68% of those who had begun a PhD program in the humanities between 1996 and 2003 had earned a PhD by 2010 (see Reason 46). But most striking was a calculation of how much, on average, each Yale graduate student had cost the graduate school over a six-year period: $17,421 in the natural sciences, $126,339 in the social sciences, and $143,170 in the humanities. Graduate students in classics cost the university more than twenty times as much as graduate students in physics ($155,392 vs. $7,401). The numbers do not bode well for the social sciences and humanities. Disciplines that do not attract investment (see Reason 22) are looking more and more like unbearable financial burdens to the administrators of the modern university.

The terrible job market facing graduate students (see Reason 8) has never sufficed to convince universities to reduce the size of their graduate programs, but their own bottom line probably will. In the long run, the study may result in positive change if smaller graduate programs relieve pressure on the job market. For those already in the graduate-school pipeline, however, program cuts will only worsen the funding and employment situation. In its report on the study, the Yale Daily News quoted English Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University: “It just doesn’t make sense for people to go to school in the humanities.”