Revolution Without the Revolution

A series of shifts are happening in our economy: A record of number of millennials are trading in conventional career paths to launch tech start-ups, start small businesses that are rooted in local communities, or freelance their expertise. We are sharing everything from bikes and cars to extra rooms in our homes.

Globally recognized entrepreneur and founder of Taproot Foundation, that helped create the $15 billion pro bono service market, Aaron Hurst argues in his latest book, The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World, that while these developments seem unrelated at first, taken together they reveal a powerful pattern that points to purpose as the new driver of the American economy.

The Purpose Economy

I heard about this book from one of those irritating NPR stories in which the reporter swallows a marketing plan whole and then treats it as if it were social science. I can just see the publisher’s PR guy checking one more item off the list. Next up, “Good Morning America!” In any case it struck me as a perfect example of the bourgeois desire for a revolution– profound and lasting social change– without the revolution– that is, with no notion of justice and collective struggle. This is what the internet was suppose to do as well.

That’s not to say that the internet didn’t change many things; it did. The internet as such, though, isn’t a revolution: it leaves the basic social structures of capitalism, worker and capitalist, private property, and so on, intact. Arguably, the internet and its attendant technologies reinforced capitalism and extended the reach of the market. Hurst’s ideas are, in effect, an attempt to convince us that the loss of benefits and a pension plan and any job security is, in fact, the best thing that every happened to you and to the world. Got it.

Sellers Market

The condemnation of Nazareth, should this story turn out to be true, should be near universal. W did nothing wrong except attempt to negotiate in good faith. But obviously, she doesn’t know the world in which she’s found herself trapped. In academia, any sense of self-worth whatsoever is “overinflated.” The proper way to “negotiate” an academic offer is to counter with offers to do more work: I want to be a team player, so I can take on 10 new courses a semester, or more even. And I shall never be so unforgivably selfish as to procreate, unless you count my true babies—my publications!

That is what this job market requires. Anyone who isn’t willing to bend over is out. If you don’t like it, best of luck “finding a suitable position”—and make sure that you take, with utmost gratitude, whatever offer they deign to give you.

The Tenure Take-Back,” Rebecca Schuman,

This is a story about a teacher who tried to negotiate with Nazareth, when she was offered a job, and was told that her requests indicated,” an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.” The job offer was withdrawn. I know it might be hard for many to believe, but I do. I know from personal experience that this is how far down the rabbit hole academia has gone. 65% of are contingent faculty; that means universities can do just about anything.

Student Debt

Student loans have soared in popularity over the past decade, with the aggregate student loan balance, as measured in the FRBNY Consumer Credit Panel, reaching $966 billion at the end of 2012. Student debt now exceeds aggregate auto loan, credit card, and home-equity debt balances—making student loans the second largest debt of U.S. households, following mortgages. Student loans provide critical access to schooling, given the challenge presented by increasing costs of higher education and rising returns to a degree. Nevertheless, some have questioned how taking on extensive debt early in life has affected young workers’ post-schooling economic activity.

As a result of tighter underwriting standards, higher delinquency rates, and lower credit scores, consumers with educational debt may have more limited access to housing and auto debt and, as a result, more limited options in the housing and vehicle markets, despite their comparatively high earning potential.

Young Student Loan Borrowers Retreat from Housing and Auto Markets,” Meta Brown and Sydnee Caldwell, Liberty Street Economics

Along with the minimum wage increase, national health care, and the expansion of social security, student debt forgiveness has to be high on any Democratic Socialist or progressive agenda. It’s stayed below the radar so far but I suspect that may be changing. The quote, above, isn’t from a left-wing economics journal, it’s from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I first went into debt in this way in the 1980’s, after my Dad died and I had to find a way to pay for the rest of my undergraduate degree and an M.A.

IF I had lived in somewhere other than Texas, or now, the debt might have been at least partly forgiven when I served in the Peace Corps. The real problem came later, in the 1990’s, when I went for my Ph.D. at U.T. Austin, which had no tuition waiver, and paid so poorly for teaching that unless you had parents with money you had to go into debt. I’ve been paying that debt steadily for nearly 15 years and the last time I checked it won’t be paid off until I am around 85 years old. It’s nothing but welfare for the banks.

The New Faculty Minority

We don’t deserve to all be adjunctifed—if only because universities without academic freedom translates to a less free society—but I worry that we are more likely to be if we let the few sadistic professors and knife-twisting administrators distract us from the much more difficult, because more intimate and more ethically complex, politics of painstakingly changing what is in many places now our status quo.

When Tenure-Track Faculty Take on the Problem of Adjunctification,” Jennifer Ruth

Here’s another piece that links the current state of our profession to the privileges and stubbornness of tenure track faculty, e.g. the status quo. I have had some experience with these things myself, and I sympathize with Ruth’s plight. I admit, too, that when I first went into academia I naïvely supposed a certain kind of progressive thinking was a natural part of my profession. As it turns out, academics are a deeply conservative lot, less concerned with justice and equity and more with protecting (what’s left of) their status.

I am hoping that these skirmishes are a sign that the bottom has been reached, although I tend to agree more with P.D. Lesko, who thinks that adjuncts need to think beyond what their tenure track colleagues believe is best. I am also less sanguine that Ruth about the good will of administrations. I think it is administrative culture– with its distorted business model– that lie at the heart of our problems. As Lesko notes, we work in a trillion-dollar sector. There’s no reason, beyond misguided administration, why we can’t have pay equity.

Educational Futures

Almost half of recent college graduates did not get jobs in their field of choice. The majority of these underemployed appear to work in the retail or restaurant industries. Among those working in the retail industry, 78 percent had desired to enter a different industry prior to graduating. Similarly, 81 percent of those graduates working in the restaurant industry had wanted to enter a different industry. This study once again showed that many of our recent graduates are currently underutilized.

McKinsey on Young College Graduates,” Will Kimball

When I worked at a public university I was always surprised to find so many professors in favor of raising tuition. Not all of them would admit it, but the consensus seemed to be that the more expensive an education becomes, the better the students. Many professors would rather send off the difficult students to the community colleges– or to a poorly paid job– than have to deal with trying to teach them.

Some students, it was commonly said, are simply not college material. The real issue isn’t about who can or cannot learn; it’s about money and time. The less well-prepared students are more expensive in every way. They need more personal attention, which means smaller class sizes, and it can be a challenge to convince them that learning is worth the time and effort. Too many people think it’s just not worth it.

This CEPR report worries me because some people will use it to argue that too many people are going to college; that college is too expensive given that we don’t need as many graduates as we already have, and so on. It’s the classic reactionary push against social progress. Maybe (now that the debt crisis is over) we ought to be expanding those fields– research, science, education itself– that require a college degree.

Future Tense

About 15 years ago those of us interested in using computers to teach– we were teaching composition or literature classes– saw ourselves as fighting against academic Luddites who refused to understand that these new communication technologies were both beneficial and inevitable. This is the future, we would say, and we should welcome it and use it to our advantage. That wasn’t the only development in our field, however.

Alongside this technology we also saw the rise of a higher education system in which the ordinary standards of professional life– established over decades– had been eroded. The tenure track academic was being replaced with the poorly paid itinerant adjunct without health care, a pension, or any job security. I’ve long believed that our technological optimism was used as a kind of trojan horse to help destroy the profession.

Times have changed. I don’t mean to suggest that there we have lost our technological optimism. We have not. I think, though, that the technological emperor has begun to seem more and more naked. Multitasking is dead. There’s been a conference on “The Dark Side of the Digital” and more and more faculty– not surprisingly, in California (see here and here)– are resisting the online dystopias. We’ve come full circle.

As I’ve said, we were overly optimistic and this new-found realism is a helpful sign; I am hoping it does not presage a new form of academic Luddite. Resisting ineffective or immature online technologies, however, is only one-half of the picture. We also need a political movement dedicated to re-professionalizing academia. If that is ever going to happen it’ll have to include a savvy understanding of online technologies.