Yes, Let’s Talk ROI and the Myth of ‘Accountability’

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Image: Hilary Perkins

Image: Hilary Perkins

As all nine read­ers of this blog can attest, I tend to focus on lan­guage and our increas­ing inabil­ity to use it in any ser­vice­able man­ner when dis­cussing higher edu­ca­tion. Nearly all buzz­words emerge from ulte­rior dog whis­tles, with “account­able” and “account­abil­ity” being major offend­ers in this regard. With the release of Payscale’s ROI col­lege rank­ings, “account­abil­ity” is in the air again, with Jor­dan Weiss­mann offer­ing up this mar­vel of mis­un­der­stand­ing in the sub­header to his March 31st piece at Slate (I won’t link): “Aca­d­e­mics might not like it, but schools should be held account­able.” Right. Because as we all know, aca­d­e­mics con­trol cost at their insti­tu­tions, arbi­trar­ily set­ting tuition, stu­dent fees, tech­nol­ogy fees, build­ing projects, admin­is­tra­tor pay, and res­i­dence fees while hus­tling from one class to the next. Yes, if any­one should be scolded for the cost of col­lege, it’s…academics. (Geeze, I guess I’ve missed all of those meetings!)

But I won’t waste time there, because Cedar Riener has already fully rep­re­sented on the topic. In short, Cedar does the heavy lift­ing required when one zooms in on selec­tive, blan­ket assertions—he brings the full social sci­en­tist good­ness to remind some that fac­tors like income, race, gen­der, and selec­tive admis­sion also con­tribute to a student’s future income, as do other minor influ­ences like, well, national eco­nomic pol­icy.  Read the whole thing because it’s much more infor­ma­tive and use­ful than what I will write here. But when dis­cussing col­lege ROI and hold­ing schools (aca­d­e­mics!) account­able, it is also use­ful to zoom out, and here’s a small pic­ture of what I see when doing so. Con­tinue read­ing


The Vanishing Academic

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Storytelling, 1912, via the Serendip-o-matic.

Sto­ry­telling, 1912, via the Serendip-o-matic.

The three or four read­ers who visit this blog know how frus­trated I am with how we talk about edu­ca­tion in Amer­ica, specif­i­cally higher edu­ca­tion. This is not a unique feeling—get in line, right? My boil­er­plate take is that voices who con­sis­tently miss the big pic­ture over­whelm those who under­stand that our most sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems begin and end in state leg­is­la­tures and on Capi­tol Hill.

Still, maybe I just don’t under­stand the fetishiz­ing of whether or not some­one “loves” what they do. Maybe I don’t under­stand the relent­less codes of con­duct issued to aca­d­e­mics who are essen­tially pow­er­less in the acad­emy in the area that mat­ters most: bud­gets. Maybe I don’t under­stand the pur­pose of adopt­ing the anti-labor strate­gies of right-wing/neoliberal coali­tions that pit pow­er­less pop­u­la­tions against each other for the sake of redis­trib­ut­ing the mere crumbs from the crust of a pie. Maybe it’s eas­ier to refer to the peo­ple who are “com­plicit” instead of address­ing the larger polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and ide­o­log­i­cal forces at work, even when these forces largely work with­out even the pre­tense of dis­guise.

Mean­while, there’s a lot of van­ish­ing going on in the higher edu­ca­tion land­scape. Con­tinue read­ing


MLA makes me think about jobs, which makes me think about cover letters and…

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

I've been sent to you by the finest people!

I’ve been sent to you by the finest people!

…advice, of course. With the MLA con­fer­ence in full swing, there are flocks of bril­liant peo­ple gath­ered in Chicago. Many of those peo­ple are search­ing for jobs…in Eng­lish! As some­one who recently spent a cou­ple hun­dred hours read­ing appli­ca­tion mate­ri­als, I thought I might don the dusty hat of advice colum­nist, if only to offer a thought or two about the cover let­ter, which is, after all, what a search com­mit­tee reads first. I know there are rivers of advice out there, and much of it is pretty darn good.  I sug­gest check­ing out Josh Eyler, who is already in the house with a nice piece on cover let­ters, as well as another on putting together a teach­ing phi­los­o­phy.

What did I see that made me want to write this post? A good por­tion of the let­ters I’ve read recently open with the same for­mula, which I will now refer to as the “dissertation/mentor” tem­plate. It reads some­thing like:

I am cur­rently fin­ish­ing my PhD at [insert rep­utable insti­tu­tion here] and will expect to grad­u­ate [soon!]. My dis­ser­ta­tion research is on [insert mad skills here] under the guid­ance of Scholar 1, Scholar 2, and Scholar 3.


In 2012, I com­pleted my PhD at [insert rep­utable insti­tu­tion here]. My dis­ser­ta­tion on [insert mad skills here] was super­vised by Scholar 1, Scholar 2, and Scholar 3. Con­tinue read­ing


Waving the White Flag on Tenured vs. Adjunct

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Here’s is an instruc­tional video that preps all three of my read­ers for this post:

It’s not even past noon on the first day of 2014 and the worst blog post/commentary on higher ed labor has already been writ­ten. Close the vot­ing peo­ple, because that baby is over! If you thought Shark­nado was too much, then prep your­self for a view­ing of Fonzie-nado, because that’s where we are now. This com­ing year, as it will be for so many oth­ers, will be incred­i­bly busy so I might as well get this post out of the way, be done with it, and just move on to work where I hope­fully have some­thing to contribute.

The usual disclosure(s): I am cur­rently a tenured pro­fes­sor, hav­ing just received tenure in my new posi­tion. This was actu­ally my sec­ond go-around with the tenure-track process, as I left a tenured posi­tion to pur­sue my cur­rent job. By stat­ing this, much of what I write in this post from this point for­ward will be dis­missed or stamped with a “well of course he feels that way!” I under­stand that and am sym­pa­thetic to the rea­sons for that response. Still, I’ll give this a try: Con­tinue read­ing


A Quick Word on the Crappy Job Market

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

via Serindip-o-matic

Image: South­ern Utah Uni­ver­sity via Serindip-o-matic

I spe­cial­ize in the obvi­ous. It’s a gift.

With this gift comes the com­pul­sion to share what is obvi­ous, if just to explic­itly annun­ci­ate some­thing for the sake of reminder, of see­ing it acknowl­edged pub­licly, you know, like when you turn to friends and say, paved road­ways are fan­tas­tic; we can go places!

Today’s swatch of the obvi­ous: the cur­rent job mar­ket in higher edu­ca­tion, specif­i­cally the human­i­ties, results in our wast­ing a ton of tal­ent, with “a ton” serv­ing as grandiose understatement.

I am cur­rently serv­ing on a search com­mit­tee, and that’s as spe­cific as I can get about that. Before tak­ing on this respon­si­bil­ity, I had been read­ing a lot about the job market—the steep num­ber of appli­ca­tions, the deep pools filled with already tenurable dossiers–and thought much of what was being said and writ­ten about the appli­cant end of the process was over­stated. It’s not. Not one bit. (The hir­ing end of things is another story for another day.)

Con­tinue read­ing


Staying “Relevant” in the Humanities

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak


Courtesy DPLA via Serendip-o-matic

Cour­tesy DPLA via Serendip-o-matic

I just had the plea­sure of sit­ting through the tenure hear­ings of three ded­i­cated, bril­liant col­leagues. The event was strange for me because, even though I am now tenured at my cur­rent insti­tu­tion, I’ve actu­ally been there for less time than those who were under con­sid­er­a­tion. Given that, I went in with my reli­able strat­egy of “lis­ten, learn, and respect.”

Sen­si­ble peo­ple in higher ed would agree that lis­ten­ing to col­leagues dis­cuss their teach­ing ideas, projects, and research proves to be a hum­bling, awe-inspiring expe­ri­ence. In our national “dis­cus­sion” of higher ed, which serves to belit­tle and dehu­man­ize these pro­fes­sion­als, it is easy to become dis­tanced from the real­ity that at any given moment you are side-by-side with the true experts and lead­ers in any num­ber of fields. For exam­ple, sit­ting on my left dur­ing this tenure meet­ing was one of the world’s top-five clas­si­cal schol­ars, while on my right sat a nationally-recognized Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture scholar; I could add to this roll call if I wanted to. In short, as when describ­ing any good uni­ver­sity, we’re talk­ing about an inspir­ing col­lec­tion of world-class tal­ent, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to teach­ing and schol­ar­ship. Yet, what dawned on me in this meet­ing is how most of what we do in human­i­ties depart­ments has been labeled “irrel­e­vant” or “imprac­ti­cal.” Con­tinue read­ing


Why Changing the Mission of Grad Programs is Hard… and Getting Harder

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Image: Paolo Camera

Image: Paolo Camera

If you fol­low the sweaty rugby scrums known as “whether or not one should go to grad­u­ate school in the human­i­ties,” you undoubt­edly know the name William Pan­na­packer (pic­tured left, in orange)—as a voice, he resides at the sym­bolic epi­cen­ter of this higher ed earth­quake. This earth­quake has a lot of rat­tle to go with its shake: the num­ber of jobs is shrink­ing, the num­ber of can­di­dates is grow­ing, labor is being exploited, and there­fore a lot of peo­ple suf­fer sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial and men­tal hardship.

Pannapacker’s think­ing on the issue often gets mis­rep­re­sented, but his posi­tion essen­tially has two pil­lars: first, he thinks that advis­ers and prospec­tive stu­dents have a duty to be as informed as pos­si­ble; prospec­tive grad­u­ate stu­dents need their eyes open to the real­i­ties of debt, oppor­tu­nity cost, and job scarcity. Sec­ond, Pan­na­packer calls on the pro­grams them­selves to take deci­sive action—they are to change the way they do busi­ness, espe­cially in prepar­ing expected grad­u­ates for jobs; in short, what’s needed is a mas­sive realign­ment toward alt-ac job train­ing and aggres­sive, track­able job place­ment. It is the sec­ond pil­lar I will take issue with here, since this is eas­ier said than done for a few rea­sons that don’t see much light in blog posts and the hurly-burly of Twit­ter. So, on to a seg­ment called…

Com­ing to a Pub­lic Higher Ed Sys­tem Near You! Con­tinue read­ing


Edublame: The Higher Ed Shell Game

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak


Image via Serindip-o-matic

In my great state, today is the sec­ond day of “Com­mon Ground” meet­ings between leg­is­la­tors, Regents, and uni­ver­sity offi­cials. At this event, par­tic­i­pants will play shell games, pre­tend­ing that the answers to easy ques­tions are not easy. They will point fin­gers at ide­o­log­i­cal tar­gets, as par­ti­sans must do by nature, and build lin­guis­tic houses that have no foun­da­tion in real­ity. As always, my focus on this blog is how we talk about higher edu­ca­tion (poorly and dis­hon­estly), and while my exam­ple is cur­rently unfold­ing in the state of Wis­con­sin, let’s com­pare notes and see if this sounds famil­iar to you.

Let’s wade into the mythology.

1. Why is tuition in the state sys­tem ris­ing? Obvi­ous and proven answer: because state gov­ern­ment has cut sup­port for the sys­tem. Period. This is what they want to do. Ide­o­log­i­cally, they oppose the Uni­ver­sity sys­tem because they feel it rep­re­sents some­thing that it doesn’t actu­ally rep­re­sent (lib­er­al­ism, etc). That illu­sion aside, Dylan Matthews doses us with real­ity in today’s Wash­ing­ton Post:

For pub­lic master’s, bachelor’s, and com­mu­nity col­leges, the prob­lem is sim­ple. Spend­ing has not increased much at all, but tuition has. There’s been a straight­for­ward shift from financ­ing based on state spend­ing to financ­ing based on stu­dent tuition. To get tuition lower again, some other entity is going to have to fill the gap left by state cuts.

Today’s shell game: leg­is­la­tors will pre­tend that they are not the rea­son for ris­ing tuition costs. They will pre­tend that delib­er­ate state fund­ing choices do not have mea­sur­able effects in the world. They will pre­tend that defund­ing pub­lic insti­tu­tions is not an explicit goal, adopt­ing per­for­ma­tive con­fu­sion and feigned sur­prise at the results. Con­tinue read­ing


There is no more money for education!”

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

(Updated Below)

This short post will be stun­ningly obvi­ous to any­one with a sense of context.

Library.jpgI’ve been read­ing Dylan Matthews’ Wash­ing­ton Post series on ris­ing uni­ver­sity tuition, which con­firms what most of us have known for a long time: state cuts to higher edu­ca­tion bud­gets have directly resulted in increased tuition at non-R1 schools. Duh. Duh. Super duh. What both­ers me about today’s install­ment is that while acknowl­edg­ing this real­ity, Mr. Matthews dresses that real­ity in the tat­tered lan­guage of logic and “sense.” For example:

And they’ve cho­sen to cut higher edu­ca­tion. It makes sense. Tax increases are polit­i­cally unpop­u­lar. Other pro­grams, like Med­ic­aid, have already been cut nearly to the bone; indeed, the sig­nif­i­cant health care costs involved in higher edu­ca­tion make it among the more attrac­tive options for health care cuts. Cut­ting higher edu­ca­tion spend­ing, which is often a sub­sidy to mid­dle class fam­i­lies at the expense of upper-income and lower-income ones, is a log­i­cal option in that envi­ron­ment — par­tic­u­larly because you can just raise tuition on higher-income stu­dents to off­set it. (empha­sis mine)

Stick­ing with this blog’s Carver­ian theme of how we talk about things, there you have it—in the coun­try with the largest econ­omy in the his­tory of the planet, all of these cuts make sense or, in a cer­tain con­text, can be inter­preted as log­i­cal. But does this really make sense? By talk­ing about any­thing this way—education, health­care, social secu­rity, pen­sions, ben­e­fits, salary—are we truly acknowl­edg­ing a log­i­cal real­ity, or are we sur­ren­der­ing one? I’d say the latter.

Con­tinue read­ing


Let’s See How Tenure is Doing…

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

We're tenured and we ride at dawn! (National Library of Ireland)

We’re tenured and we ride at dawn! (National Library of Ire­land via Serendip-o-matic)

As all nine peo­ple who read this blog know, I’m inter­ested in how we talk about things because that lan­guage, from where I sit, is equal to real­ity. Those read­ers will also know that I think we gen­er­ally suck at talk­ing about higher edu­ca­tion. There are any num­ber of rea­sons for this: the rep­e­ti­tion of mind­less talk­ing points, a lack of expe­ri­ence actu­ally work­ing in the insti­tu­tion, a delib­er­ate agenda, etc. Where the worst offend­ers do their worst suck­ing is often on the sub­ject of tenure. Let’s call it what it is: many peo­ple are anti-tenure for rea­sons they don’t under­stand, and see the most impor­tant ele­ment of employ­ment resid­ing in the abil­ity to fire some­one. We’ve come a long way as a species. I recently wrote a post about such buf­foon­ery, and given Pres­i­dent Obama’s Higher Edu­ca­tion speech at SUNY Buf­falo (given in the exact place where I waited in line to reg­is­ter for my first col­lege classes), I’d thought we’d check in on all the dam­age that tenure and tenured pro­fes­sors are per­pe­trat­ing on our insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing. Pres­i­dent Obama, over to you… Con­tinue read­ing